Ontario experts call for updated COVID-19 screening, school attendance policies

WATCH ABOVE: (July 19) Summer vacation is in full swing but in the back of many parents’ minds is a return to school in September and what that might look like. As Caryn Lieberman reports, Sick Kids Hospital is providing guidance for a safe return to the classroom.

TORONTO — The runny nose will likely retain its power to turn school days and work schedules upside down in September, but Ontario’s science advisers are envisioning fewer snotty disruptions the lower the COVID-19 risk becomes.

Earlier this year, amid the rising third wave, the province said that a student had to stay home if anyone in the household had a symptom. Science advisers are suggesting those policies should be updated.

“What is important is just to find this sweet spot between really making sure that we don’t have uncontrolled outbreaks in schools, but on the other hand just also making sure that we don’t generate a lot of unnecessary disruption,” said Dr. Peter Juni, a member of the science table, which advises the province on COVID-19.

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“(For) a potential exposure to a fully vaccinated individual would we really still have the same approach that we’ve had for an unvaccinated individual? No, we start to pivot the strategy.”

The science table issued recommendations earlier this week for schools, urging that they be closed only in the most catastrophic situations. The experts also recommended loosening restrictions in areas such as masking, but only when the risk is low – a place, they emphasize, the province is not yet in.

Among the recommendations are updates to screening and exclusion policies – what to do when someone has any symptom of COVID-19.

In both the low-risk and moderate-risk scenarios, the experts are recommending that fully vaccinated people wouldn’t have to stay home from school if they were exposed to a COVID-19 case. Ontario is currently offering vaccines to anyone aged 12 and older.

Those scenarios also contemplate dropping the requirement for students to stay home if anyone in their household has a symptom. It would mean kids could still go to school if their sibling had a fever or their father had a stuffed-up nose. Even in the high-risk situation, they recommend not needing to keep students home if the family member with a symptom is fully vaccinated.

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Public health units say they are eagerly awaiting updated guidance from the province on screening, among other measures, ahead of the fall.

The government has said that requirements on masking, hand hygiene and screening will be among its back-to-school plan that’s expected to be released in the coming weeks.

Toronto mother Cristina Adam said it’s tough when both of her children, aged 21 months and four years old, have to stay home from daycare because one of them has a runny nose, but she supports the cautious approach.

“My husband and I luckily have jobs that are flexible..but they’re kids,” she said. “We live in an apartment, they don’t know boundaries, they’re not quiet.”

Her children’ daycare has take-home tests available and she would like to see that rolled out for all families to take advantage. They have lost up to four days, between booking a testing appointment and waiting for results, versus the take-home results that come back within 12 hours, she said.

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Juni said the hope is that one day, perhaps when Ontario has 90 per cent vaccine coverage, with low case counts and low risk, “a runny nose of a child does not disrupt the daily realities of school.”

Meanwhile, Ontario reported 135 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and four new deaths.

Of those new cases, 26 are in Toronto, 16 are in Peel Region, 13 are in Durham Region, 12 are in the Region of Waterloo, and 10 are in Middlesex-London.

There were nearly 20,800 tests completed in the previous day.

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Ontario reports 135 COVID-19 cases, 4 deaths

There are 145 people in intensive care in hospitals due to COVID-related critical illness and 70 patients are on ventilators.

Almost 140,500 vaccine doses were administered in the previous day.

A total of nearly 18.5 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine have been given out in the province.

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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