Ontario families with schoolchildren will be under stricter rules starting Monday when it comes to screening their kids for COVID-19.

The province updated its COVID-19 screening tool on Friday to include changes to symptom screening criteria and sibling/household isolation information.

"Everyone in your household should stay home if anyone has COVID-19 symptoms or is waiting for test results after experiencing symptoms," a statement on the government's website says. "Stay home until the person with symptoms gets a negative COVID-19 test result, is cleared by public health, or is diagnosed with another illness."

Ottawa Public Health told CTV News Ottawa by email that its own COVID-19 screening tool has been updated in time for Monday and that the updated criteria would be distributed to local school boards.

Selecting a single symptom in the screening tool now presents the following message: "Your child should not attend school/child care today and should get tested for COVID-19 as soon as possible."

The Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit (LGLDHU) said in a statement Friday night that the changes are in response to the threat of COVID-19 variants of concern (VOCs), such as the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the U.K., which has been spreading in Ontario.

"The presence of COVID-19 variants of concern (VOCs) in Ontario has prompted the province to make changes to the guidelines for self-isolation, and changes to the school and childcare screening tool. The VOCs cause COVID-19 to spread more easily from one person to another, and the goal with these changes is to stop/slow the spread of VOCs to the greatest extent possible to prevent new COVID-19 infections and mitigate impacts on hospitals and the healthcare system," the LGLDHU said.

The health unit said school staff, students and children with any new or worsening symptoms of COVID-19, even those with only one symptom, must stay home without exemption until:

  • they receive a negative COVID-19 test result and symptoms are improving with no fever, and they are feeling well enough to go to school, OR
  • they receive an alternative diagnosis by a healthcare professional, OR
  • it has been 10 days since their symptom onset and they are feeling better.

Ottawa parents reacted to the new screening measures for schools on Saturday.

"I don't think that it's fair that the children should have to stay home just because of one symptom," said parent Ramsey Anderson.

Anderson says if his 10-year-old boy develops a symptom, he needs to take time off.

"It's a financial burden on everybody because a lot of people don't have sick days, as a result they have to take time off. They have to rely on getting subsidy from the government if they can get it."

Carolyn Molina, a mother of two boys, says her son was sent home with a sore throat in the fall, and they stood in line for three hours to get a COVID-19 test.

"I have the luxury that I don't work so I'm at home, so if that happens just bring them home. Now it impacts my husband because he goes out to work; if he has to isolate too, that's a bit of a problem."

Molina says she knows her kids well enough to know if it's a cold or allergies or something more.

"Its cold season and kids get colds, and that's some of the symptoms."

Anderson is sympathetic to the reasoning for the changes to COVID-19 screening, but he wonders whether the rules are too strict now.

"This is Canada, this is winter. Children are going to play with one another, they're going to get sick. So in my opinion, it's hard for everybody in the family."

Single symptom screening was in place in early September when in-person schooling returned following the first wave of COVID-19. In Ottawa, many families waited for hours in long lines for a COVID-19 test for their children. The province later allowed children with only a single symptom of COVID-19, such as a runny nose or sore throat, to return to school 24 hours after symptoms resolve without needing a negative test result.

Testing capacity has increased since September and the province has moved to an appointment-based system. The Ottawa COVID-19 Testing Taskforce says Ottawa’s assessment centres are open and have capacity to test kids who are symptomatic or who are identified as a high-risk contact and that "same-day or next-day appointments are frequently available."

Recent rapid asymptomatic testing of Ottawa's school population resulted in less than one per cent of students testing positive.

With files from CTV News Ottawa's Colton Praill