Ontario’s updated COVID-19 screening protocols for children could relieve what child-care providers have described as a significant and unnecessary burden.
The provincial government on Thursday afternoon revealed an amended COVID-19 screening policy for children attending schools and child-care centres.
The new regulations feature a shorter list of symptoms that would require a child to be tested for COVID-19. The province said the new rules reflect the latest evidence and were made in consultation with pediatric infectious disease experts.
“This will ensure that our children are able to attend school or child care as much as possible while minimizing the risk of COVID-19 transmission,” said Ontario’s Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe.
Notably, children will no longer be removed from school or child care and advised to go for testing if they have a runny nose, headache, sore throat, fatigue or diarrhea. Children displaying any one of those symptoms will now be asked to go home for at least 24 hours and return only “when they feel well enough to do so.”
However, if a child has two or more of those symptoms, they will be asked to isolate and contact a health-care provider for further advice.
Those symptoms are “commonly associated with many other illnesses,” Yaffe said.
Children experiencing a fever, persistent cough, chills or a loss of taste or smell will still need to isolate and get medical advice, which includes the possibility that a child may need to be tested for COVID-19.
Dr. Yaffe said the updated regulations will give parents and family doctors a greater ability to assess a child’s health. In some cases a health-care provider may be able to provide an alternate diagnosis, bypassing the need for COVID-19 testing entirely.
“Schools and daycares should not be requiring a negative COVID test; in fact, they shouldn’t even require a doctor’s note,” Yaffe said during a Thursday news conference.
Abdominal pain and pinkeye have also been removed from the list of possible COVID-19 symptoms entirely.
‘Almost all of them had a runny nose’
Toronto child-care operators said they had been struggling for weeks under the previous rules.
Leigh Anne Jacques, the co-owner of Beaches Montessori School, said more than half of the children at her centre have been either sent home or barred from attending since the school reopened in September.
“That’s a really high number of children to be excluded from school for illness,” said Jacques.
“Unfortunately, in our toddler classroom, almost all of them had a runny nose in the first couple weeks of school.”
Amy O’Neil, director of Treetop Children’s Centre, also raised concerns about the previous screening policy, saying that it burdened parents by requiring them to take time off work and take their child for testing.
“It’s just not a model that will work on an ongoing basis,” she said, noting Ontario’s ongoing issues around long lineups and wait times for test results.
O’Neil estimated that her centre has also sent home around half of its children over what she would consider mild symptoms. She described spending up to three hours on the phone per day calling Toronto Public Health, the Ministry of Health and the parents of symptomatic children.
“Typically in September we would never be calling parents unless symptoms were really bad,” she said. “In child care we’re very used to runny noses, coughs, diarrhea, the usual childhood symptoms.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce indicated last week that the province would consider revising its list of symptoms requiring a COVID-19 test after a similar move by British Columbia health officials.