As schools prepare for the return of in-person learning next Monday, parents in Ontario are being encouraged to get their children vaccinated against COVID-19, especially with changes coming to how potential outbreaks will be reported.

After about two weeks of remote learning, brought in place following the holiday break due to the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases and the arrival of the Omicron variant, students in Ontario will head back to the classroom on Jan. 17.

But it comes as the province announced changes on Wednesday that parents will only be notified of a potential COVID-19 outbreak when about 30 per cent of staff and students in a school are absent, at which point the principal will contact local health officials. Parents also will not be notified of each COVID-19 case or exposure in their child's school.

"I'm not sure what the usefulness of it is," Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist in Toronto, told CTV's Your Morning on Thursday.

"I mean, if you're trying to control it, you start further back where really anyone who's symptomatic should be at home."

She says the safest thing parents can do right now is to get their children vaccinated.

While the risk of severe illness or hospitalization in children due to COVID-19 remains low compared to adults, kids can still contract and transmit the virus.

But given how infectious and widespread COVID-19 is right now, and with vaccination rates among school-aged children low compared to adults, chances are kids will be exposed to it in the classroom, Banerji says.

"It's a two-way street and they can bring it home," she said. "And if you want to reduce the risk, the real risk, of kids getting COVID and helping them have less symptoms or no symptoms, then get your kids vaccinated."


In a tweet on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated.

Anyone five and older in Ontario is currently eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

As of Wednesday, more than 86 per cent of children aged 12-17 in Ontario have received at least one dose, while nearly 83 per cent are fully vaccinated.

The rates are much lower for those aged 5-11, with more than 47 per cent having received at least one dose and 4.2 per cent fully vaccinated.

The official recommendation from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization is that children aged 5-11 receive their second dose at least eight weeks after their first.

The province notes that not all absent students will be away due to COVID-19. Parents also will be able to access the absentee rate at their child's school through the province's website starting Jan. 24 before the 30 per cent threshold is met.

The province is providing every student and staff member with two COVID-19 rapid tests, which can be done at home and provide results in about 15 minutes.

Those who are symptomatic and receive two negative rapid test results, taken 24 to 48 hours apart, are advised to still continue isolating until their symptoms improve.

"It seems like they sort of decided, well, we can't really control this, we're only going to let people know when it's quite significant," Banerji said. "But there's no contact tracing going on in schools."

However, she says she understands that the mental health of children, and the impact that remote learning has had on them, is driving the decision to keep kids in school.

She also commended the province's commitment to further improve ventilation in schools and provide more masks, including 10 million N95 masks for staff.

Her hope also is more adults in schools will get added protection from COVID-19 through booster shots.


Toronto infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch told CTV News Channel on Thursday that greater transparency and information sharing would "do wonders" as far as building public trust, even if the data is imperfect or limited, or the news isn't good.

"More information is better than less information, and I think parents would want to know significantly earlier than when 30 per cent of students or staff are away," he said.

Most people in a school community will likely know an outbreak has occurred long before 30 per cent of students and staff are absent, Bogoch says.

But given the relatively low rates of vaccination among children, he says every possible barrier to "bringing the vaccines to the people, not bringing people to the vaccines" needs to be lowered.

"It's not sufficient for senior political leaders or senior public health leaders to go on mainstream media or social media and say, 'Hey, please get vaccinated.' That doesn't work," Bogoch said.

"You really have to communicate with people in an age, language and culturally appropriate manner. This is behavioural change, we're asking people to do something, so we have to be honest with the message, with the data."

With files from CTV News Toronto