By Charlie Senack
A Barrhaven elementary school has been the first education institution to fully close in Ottawa this term due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
St. Benedict School, located in Half Moon Bay, was forced to close Tuesday after 13 students tested positive for COVID-19. At least 10 cases are linked to the outbreak.
In a letter sent to parents that same day, Ottawa Public Health said the outbreak was spread through multiple cohorts, and the extreme move was being made “out of an abundance of caution.” The school is expected to remain closed for 10 days.
“Upon further investigation, OPH has declared an extension to the outbreak,” Ottawa Public Health said in an emailed statement Tuesday after the school’s positive case count jumped. “The whole school has been closed, out of an abundance of caution, as our investigation suggests that there is evidence of the spread of COVID-19 to several cohorts in the school.”
A COVID-19 outbreak is declared when two or more cases are linked together within the school setting. It does not typically mean the school would fully close, but instead certain cohorts could be sent home if they are considered high risk.
When the outbreak at St. Benedict was first declared, many parents in the Ottawa Catholic School opted to keep their kids at home as cases began to rise and more classes shut their doors.
It’s believed the outbreak began in a trio of kindergarten cohorts, but also somehow spread to at least one grade 4 class.
“So it was the case where there was more than one cohort where people had tested positive, and then we had started to see other children from different cohorts test positive, without a link back to these cohorts. We did find the need for them to isolate,” Ottawa’s top Doctor Vera Etches said in a press conference Wednesday.
Ottawa Public Health said they will be contacting parents whose children need to be isolated or receive COVID-19 testing, but there is confusion over the process. Some parents say while one of their children who attends the school needs to receive a test, their siblings don’t. Ottawa’s health unit says they consider close contacts on a case-by-case basis.
Staff and students who are not high-risk contacts don’t need to take any precautions, but they should self-monitor closely for symptoms of COVID-19. Testing recommendations for other students and staff will be communicated through the school. They do however recommend staying away from vulnerable individuals.
“For the duration of the outbreak, OPH recommends that staff and students of this school not visit older persons or those with chronic illness,” a letter to families read.
Parents have been seen visiting the school to pick up textbooks and laptops for their children to use while learning remotely. Testing kits have also been sent home to families who are considered high risk contacts.
More Supports For Schools
The school outbreak comes at the same time the Ontario government ordered agencies to stop giving parents and community groups access to COVID-19 tests. It comes on the heels of a fourth wave of COVID-19 in the province, and calls to make vaccines mandatory for eligible-aged students.
St. Benedict is just one of 15 schools within Ottawa that are reporting an outbreak of COVID-19. There are over 112 active cases between the four main school boards, and numbers are usually reported a few days behind.
Ottawa’s top doctor says at this point the risk of schools closing indefinitely seems unlikely, and cases are to be expected within schools.
“I am confident that we will be able to achieve our goal of keeping schools open this fall, just as I’m cautiously optimistic about the fall in general, because what we are seeing right now — we are holding things steady,” said Etches. “What is important is to continue to think about the close contacts we have.”
Ontario’s top doctor, Dr. Kieran Moore, said higher rates of COVID-19 within schools is expected to be higher when case counts are higher in the community.
Etches has called upon making vaccines mandatory for eligible-aged students, at least for when a COVID-19 outbreak is in place. However, she also said that rapid testing wasn’t the answer.
“The Ottawa Public Health position is we want to use the goal standard test, which is the PCR-based test, so that we don’t miss someone,” Etches added.