Ontario considers shortening list of possible COVID-19 symptoms that require kids to stay home from school

Ontario’s education minister says he’s considering shortening the list of COVID-19 symptoms that require kids to stay home from school — shortly after British Columbia announced it's doing the same. 

BC removed symptoms like runny nose from its student health checklist

A Toronto kindergarten student on her first day of class in Sept. 2020. Parents in Ontario have been told to screen their kids for specific COVID-19 symptoms every morning. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario's education minister says he's considering shortening the list of COVID-19 symptoms that require kids to stay home from school — shortly after British Columbia announced it's doing the same. 

Stephen Lecce says he's working with the province's medical officials to consider possible changes to the list, which right now includes sore throat, nasal congestion and abdominal pain. 

Those three symptoms are among the 10 that B.C. opted to remove from its checklist, "given the very low probability of these symptoms by themselves indicating COVID," the ministry said in an emailed statement.

The British Columbia health ministry also says since the symptoms are "very common" in kids, "there are concerns that it would unnecessarily exclude children." 

Ontario's school reopening plan requires parents to screen their children for a list of COVID-19 symptoms and keep them home if they display signs of the novel coronavirus.

They're allowed to return to class when they no longer display symptoms.

'Conservative approach' best, says doctor

Two experts contacted by CBC Toronto expressed concern about making any changes to Ontario's list at this point, given the province's recent increase in cases. 

"Because the community transmission issues have not been resolved we are going to see more cases in schools," said Prachi Srivastava, an associate professor in global education at Western University. 

Srivastava says schools need to do everything they can to keep COVID-19 out, given that some of the major ways to reduce transmission — like substantially reducing classroom sizes and doing thorough updates to ventilation systems — haven't happened. 

Dr. Dina Kulik, a pediatrician and emergency room physician, agrees it's not the right time to revisit the symptom list.  

"I personally believe that as we see rising numbers, the conservative approach is the better way to go," she said. 

"We do know that COVID-19 can present with just a runny nose in kids." 

So far this fall, there have been 180 COVID-19 cases in Ontario schools, 77 of which are students. Two schools have had to close due to outbreaks. 

A recent analysis by CBC News of Canadian COVID-19 cases shows that runny nose, cough and sore throat are among the most common symptoms in people under the age of 19. 

'Clear guideline' for parents would be helpful

But Kulik does say there is room for improvement when it comes to communication around which kids should get tested or stay home, and for how long. 

"I think people would appreciate having a clear guideline where there wouldn't be any ambiguity," she said.

Kulik described speaking with parents who have been confused by shifting or unclear rules, giving the example of two families who had their kids tested on the same day.

One was told by the tester that if the result was negative, the child could return to school the next day, the other was told that they would have to stay home for two weeks. 

Ottawa parent Cameron Grant has direct experience with that kind of confusion.

This past weekend, he took his three-year-old son to get tested for COVID-19 after the boy developed a runny nose. His son's test returned negative and he went back to school on Monday.

Ottawa parent Grant Cameron says he could use some clarification on the rules after his son was sent home from school with a runny nose after testing negative for COVID-19. (CBC)

But, while at school, his nose started running again — and Grant was called in to pick him up based on advice from Ottawa Public Health.

The confusion came when Grant read another set of rules — ones posted to the school door — which indicated that the child should only be sent home again if new symptoms develop. 

"It's not a new symptom if [he has] a runny nose," said Grant.

"If they're being kept out of school when we know they don't have COVID-19 that might not be a good use of parents' time." 

"I don't know about getting rid of it as a symptom. I'll leave that to the doctors," he continued.

"But I'd say there's definitely a little more nuance to it available." 

With files from the Canadian Press