With kids back in school and the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, there’s a new risk to families: potential fines for sending sick children to school during a health crisis.
Anxieties are already high, at schools more than anywhere else, and that means safety precautions continue to be a major imperative — including daily monitoring of children who might be experiencing symptoms.
The repercussions for failing to do so have never been starker since August 16, when a Vaughan parent was charged for sending their child to daycare with symptoms of COVID-19. York Region Public Health said that the parent violated the region’s Section 22 order by sending their child to school despite them not passing the daily screening tool, which is a thorough series of questions that determine your child’s symptoms and access to the virus. The quiz also details the steps involved to keeping your child safe, including contacting their school to let them know of the result, isolating them, speaking with a doctor and retaking the screening each day before heading to school.
The Vaughan parent was ultimately charged $770, along with a victim surcharge fee totalling $880. It was also later confirmed that 15 children at the child’s daycare facility tested positive for COVID-19.
The story is now serving as a cautionary tale for parents sending kids to school each day.
Now, before your paranoia hits an all-time high, there are two potential areas of liability that parents should be aware of: the first is under the Ontario Health Protection and Promotion Act. Section 22 of that act permits a medical officer of health to order people to either do something or refrain from doing something in respect to the disease, and Section 23 puts that onus on caregivers or parents for those under the age of 16. It’s also important to be aware of the heath guidelines for your respective jurisdiction in Ontario.
“It is tricky for parents,” explains Nainesh Kotak, a lawyer at Toronto-based Kotak Personal Injury Law. “If they don’t comply with this legislation, there’s a potential charge and a fine. In the Vaughan case, because so many children were impacted and the effect of the non-compliance was so significant, that was one of the major reasons why charges were laid.”
He adds that he is seeing more businesses are getting fined than individuals, because the symptoms to monitor continue to change. “It is hard for parents to follow, to be up to date with what they need to screen for and what they don’t need to screen for, but it is worthwhile,” he says.
Fortunately, older children are able to conduct a self-screening process. So in some instances, there is a little bit of leeway as guidelines shift, like when a runny nose, sore throat, extreme tiredness and headache were removed from the standard list of COVID-19 symptoms just this past August. The adjusted guidelines also allowed for fully vaccinated siblings of children exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms to continue attending school in person. But, says Kotak, this new legislation still “has teeth.”
While such a fine can be disputed in the same way one might dispute any provincial offence, it’s also important to note that the charges for individuals would likely be used in more egregious circumstances, such as where 15 people get infected and there’s no mistaking how it happened.
When it comes to potential civil liability, he says that, in Ontario, Bill 218, protects individuals, businesses and corporations from liability with respect to the spread of COVID-19, unless it can be demonstrated that the individual did not act in good faith compliance with public health guidelines, or were acting recklessly — like in the case of the Vaughan parent who was aware of their child’s symptoms.
The minimum fine individuals can face for failing to comply with COVID-19 restrictions is $750, while those who obstruct an authority or individual from enforcing or complying with an order can receive a minimum fine of $1,000. The maximum penalty individuals can face is $100,000 and up to a year of jail time, while for corporations, that can be as high as $10 million.
Something also worth considering is that many insurance companies are making it clearer than ever that their policies do not cover communicable diseases. So when you go to renew your policy, be aware that there may not be protection and coverage if you incur liability for the spread of COVID-19.
The bottom line, of course, is that we all have an obligation to control the spread of the virus, and it’s always best to err on the side of caution — not just for fear of being fined but also out of respect for fellow students and school staff.
“By and large, people in Ontario are really trying to comply with guidelines that change over time,” says Kotak. “I believe the public is doing their best and I don’t think you’re going to see widespread charges or civil lawsuits arising. Still, the potential is always there.”
Is it cause for major paranoia? Not at all, just follow the guidelines.