Parents are questioning how an elementary school in Ottawa can reopen when health officials could not determine the cause of the city’s largest school COVID-19 outbreak yet.
St. Benedict School in Barrhaven closed its doors on September 28, the first of the three Ottawa schools now closed, due to concerns about spread across cohorts.
Shortly before a parent council meeting Thursday night, which included Ottawa Public Health (OPH) available to answer questions from concerned parents, the board announced that the school would reopen Tuesday.
The Ottawa Catholic School Board’s associate director of education and COVID-19 leader told the meeting that an OPH team could not find clear issues with the preventive measures the school was taking.
“I would love to be able to … see that virus and say, do you know exactly where that transmission happened? And we just do not know,” Mary Donaghy said.
“We’ve probably heard it five or six times that it’s just an accident, it’s a shame,” said Sarah Hackett, who listened to the meeting. “It just didn’t make sense to parents.”
Her feelings were echoed by Claudia Wilson, co-chair of the parent council with two children attending school.
“The fact that we can not find a reason we are about to open the school in four days, what should prevent this from happening again?” she told CBC.
Donaghy told parents that the board is considering some adjustments to its COVID-19 procedures, including having students keep their masks in recess, even when playing with others from their same cohort, and getting parents to confirm that they have followed daily COVID-19 screening tools.
More than double the cases of previous peak eruptions
On Thursday, there were a total of 37 cases associated with the outbreak of OPH, all in students. Previously, the city’s largest school outbreak had 17 cases in total.
The board tracks active cases rather than a total of cases and lists 17 active cases at St. Benedict.
While different health care units and school boards share different types of data, there are indications that it is one of the largest active school outbreaks in Ontario.
Justin Peter Milley, another co-chair of the parent council, said he did not blame anyone for the outbreak, but wondered how an investigation could not show anything conclusive about the cause.
“If a plane crashes, [whether] it is an accident or not, it has been analyzed and we are looking at procedures for how we can improve it and prevent it from happening again. So I just feel like it’s something like that being shrugged off, “he said at the meeting.
“Because in three months from now, I feel like the parents’ frustration is going to go to resentment if this happens again.”
Milley has children in Class 1 and senior kindergarten. Both have tested positive for the disease and are asymptomatic, but his two youngest children – one of whom is immunocompromised – have begun to show symptoms.
“It really depends on when it’s going to affect the rest of us?” he told CBC. “It’s been what, two weeks now, and it’s still affecting our family in an unknown way.”
Wilson said the council may look at taking its own steps outside of what the school board can do, such as buying quick antigen tests to distribute among parents. The province has said it is not an effective strategy and has given power to such campaigns to health units.