THUNDER BAY — Less than a month into the school year, hundreds of Lakehead Public School Board students are already staying home because they have at least one of a dozen symptoms that may or may not be linked to COVID-19.
Two of the board's largest schools each have over 100 students away this week.
Superintendent of Education AJ Keene says "if you added up the 15 and 20 here and there [at other schools], it adds up to the hundreds, I'm sure."
Keene described the results of following the Ministry of Health screening tool as "very challenging" for students, parents and schools.
"If you've got a cold, and have cold symptoms, then you've failed the screening tool. You're advised to contact the COVID 19 assessment centre or a medical professional. What's happening is the assessment centre is quite backlogged with the number of students and adults requesting tests," he said.
Keene explained that current MOH guidelines require that students test negative for the virus and be symptom-free for 24 hours before returning to school.
Alternatively, they can self-quarantine for 14 days from the onset of symptoms, or wait 24 hours after symptoms have resolved if there's an alternate diagnosis such as allergies.
"But those are pretty rare. what we're seeing right now is kids getting colds, and they're failing the screening too. So to be safe, they need a COVID test," Keene said.
He called the impact on learning "a big concern."
The absences are treated as an extended illness, so teachers prepare learning packages for their students, "but it is very, very hard to get any consistency whatsoever when you have as many as half your students away on a given day, and not really certain about when they're returning."
A number of board staff are also off work with cold symptoms, and waiting to be tested.
British Columbia, Keene said, has changed its screening tool to exclude things like a runny nose and sneezing.
"Certainly if we could find a safe way to recognize that symptoms kids are presenting with are simple colds, and not COVID, that would ease things greatly," Keene said.
He added that he understands why Ontario's health ministry is erring on the side of caution, but "it's just creating some real challenges and we're barely three weeks into the school year."
Some parents have reached out to the board, Keene said, with concerns about the policy, and "wondering where the policy comes from."
He said it's hard on parents because they have to arrange for child care, and some may have to take time off work.
"It is really a no-win situation for everybody...Will this be the cycle throughout the course of the year, or will we see some type of change that will permit kids to be tested more quickly?" Keene asked.
He said that with the current wait time for tests and results, some families may decide they are better off "just doing the 14-day quarantine."
Information about absenteeism at the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board related to the COVID-19 screening tool was not immediately available.
Late Tuesday, the Thunder Bay Regional Heatlh Sciences Centre, which operates the COVID-19 assessment centre, announced that some technical issues have developed in the booking system.
"Due to an extremely high demand, booking systems are overwhelmed," it said. "We request the patience of the community."
The statement advised anyone with COVID-19 symptoms to call 807-935-8100 to book a test appointment, and said same-day or next-day appointments remain available, based on the number and severity of symptoms, and on possible exposure.
Individuals not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms are now also advised that they can call the same number to book an appointment, or book online at www.tbrhsc.net.
"Wait times may be up to 10 days, as asymptomatic people are low priority for testing," the statement noted.
It added that "planning is underway to address capacity issues" for testing in Thunder Bay.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the online booking tool displayed the message "no time slots available...please call 807-935-8100 to connect with this service."