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Students arrive for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at Hunter's Glen Junior Public School, in Scarborough, Sept. 15, 2020.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Ontario says schools and daycares should not require children to receive a negative COVID-19 test to return to class after experiencing symptoms, releasing new guidelines as the province tries to clear a record backlog of more than 80,000 tests.

The new messaging from the province’s top doctors sparked confusion among parents who have reported waiting hours in line to get their children tested for the virus, because they were told to do so by their schools or daycares.

It’s not clear yet how school boards and local public-health units will respond to the new guidelines.

Many schools and daycares have told parents that if their children have symptoms they need a negative COVID-19 test to be allowed back in, but Ontario’s associate medical officer of health said Thursday that should not have been the case.

“We are changing the policy – or clarifying – that schools and daycares should not be requiring a negative COVID test. In fact they shouldn’t even require a doctor’s note,” said Dr. Barbara Yaffe.

“The parent knows the child the best. If the parent has consulted the [health care] provider, the child is feeling better, they should be able to go back to school.”

Guidance released by the province in August said medical notes or proof of negative tests should not be required for staff or students to return to school. But the Ontario government’s own online self-assessment tool instructs parents of school-aged children with even minor symptoms to immediately seek a test and isolate for 14 days.

“Parents are getting whiplash from all of the contradictory instructions from the Ford government,” said NDP education critic Marit Stiles.

Eric Wainwright of Toronto said the government’s communication seems to have created a lot of confusion at the daycare where he sends his two children, ages 3 and 11 months.

He and his wife got their 3-year-old son tested for COVID-19 over the weekend because they were under the impression he had to either have a negative result or wait 14 days and be symptom-free before returning. Their son received a negative test result on Wednesday, but he said they were told to keep him home another 24 hours after receiving a result.

“This has been a wild mess since the beginning. Nobody has known what they have to do,” Mr. Wainwright said.

Ontario said Thursday it is changing the screening guidelines for schools and daycares to allow children with symptoms to return to class sooner.

If children have one of the more serious symptoms – fever, cough, shortness of breath and loss of smell or taste – they are advised to isolate and check with their health care provider for advice, “including if your child needs a COVID-19 test or other treatment.”

If children have only one of the less serious symptoms – sore throat, runny nose, headache, nausea, diarrhea or fatigue – they can return to school after 24 hours if their symptoms are improving and do not require a COVID-19 test. If they have two of those symptoms, the rules are the same for the more serious symptoms.

Dr. Yaffe said the province is working to clarify the directives with school boards and daycares. She added that in at least 20 per cent of cases, children who test positive for the virus are asymptomatic.

Some boards have clearly been mandating that children exhibiting symptoms be tested. Halton District School Board, west of Toronto, tells parents on its website that children with symptoms must either be tested, or self-isolate for 14 days and be symptom-free for 24 hours before returning to school.

The Toronto District School Board’s online COVID-19 flow-chart, dated Sept. 24, instructs parents to keep children home from school if they have any new or worsening symptoms, including just a runny nose, and to get them tested and isolate them until their results come back. It also gives parents the option of not getting a test, and consulting a doctor for an alternative diagnosis that would allow the child to return to school once their symptoms are improving for 24 hours. Or, children can be kept home for 14 days, without a test.

Toronto Public Health referred all questions about the province’s new guidelines to the province. The Ottawa Public Health unit said on Thursday that it would update its own screening tool to reflect the changes on the type and number of symptoms needed for a child to stay home. It also said it would review its recommendations for when families are required to isolate or be tested for COVID-19.

Cricket Scott of Woodstock, Ont., said she’s glad to receive more clarity around which symptoms require further assessment.

“My middle child has a constant runny nose in the winter time,” said Ms. Scott, who has three daughters between the ages of 5 and 10. “Half of my friends have had to have their kids home for half the time school’s been open.”

With reports from Wency Leung, Jeff Gray and Caroline Alphonso in Toronto

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