The first two Canadian schools shut down because of COVID-19 demonstrate how the public health decisions to close them are a science that is not always exact.
Regional health officials in Pembroke, Ont., this week closed Fellowes High School after three staff members became infected, and at least one of them was known to have mingled among three classes. About 800 students and staff stayed home on Thursday while at least 90 students and about 50 staff were to be tested. No students had tested positive by Friday.
Quebec has had at least a dozen similar-scale outbreaks and several larger ones, but it opted to send classes home rather than close entire schools, until it shut down its first school late this week.
Montreal’s Herzliah High School was closed on Thursday after at least 15 students and one employee tested positive for COVID-19. One class had eight cases while the others were scattered among different cohorts.
Public health officials in the two provinces were also taking different approaches to the timeline for reopening the schools. In Pembroke, public health officials said Fellowes students could return next week if the outbreak is contained. The shutdown may last just a few school days.
Robert Cushman, acting Medical Officer for Renfrew County and District Health, said closing the school is a preventive measure “to catch up and get ahead of it. Our goal is to lose four or five days of school rather than four or five weeks.”
In Montreal, officials extended the standard 14-day quarantine for the private Jewish school to Oct. 5 to account for family contacts that may take place during high holy days.
“The case of this school is complex,” said Mylène Drouin, Montreal’s Director of Public Health. “I would say the outbreak is controlled, but the other sporadic school cases coming from the community, the high level of incidence in that Côte-Saint-Luc neighbourhood, the context of the Jewish holy days starting, made it all seem judicious to move online.”
All the provinces have different return-to-class and shut-down protocols, and have set different paces for reopening, and they are getting hit by school infections at different times.
Alberta on Friday reported its first case of transmission from one person to another within a school. Edmonton’s Waverley School will remain open while 12 students and seven staff are in isolation.
Alberta’s Medical Health Officer, Deena Hinshaw, said protocols at Waverley School have not been changed as a result of the cases, and there is no reason to believe anyone else in the school is at risk. She said in-school transmission was inevitable and the public health measures currently in place are designed to minimize the chance of that happening.
“However, younger children need to interact with each other in a way that is less formal, perhaps, than adults, so as with anything else, it’s a balance,” she said during a news conference on Friday.
Most schools in Alberta resumed classes during the week of Aug. 31. Since then, the province has confirmed 78 cases at 57 schools. The province has more than 2,000 schools.
Ontario had 72 cases in 60 schools, including Fellowes, as of Friday. Quebec, where most kids went back to school on Aug. 27, has had 507 cases in 272 schools. While only Herzliah was closed, health officials have sent home 189 classes.
Parents at the closed schools in Ontario and Quebec seemed to take the matter in stride.
Derrick Nearing said his Grade 12 daughter, Hannah, and Grade 10 son, Reilly, were both thrilled to return for the week classes were in at Fellowes, and disappointed to be sent home.
“I think they’re going about things the right way, and I think most parents feel the same,” Mr. Nearing said. “Everybody’s doing their best. Nobody’s been through this before.”
Mr. Nearing said Hannah is a top student, so he’s not too worried about her moving to online learning for a few days. The return to school was a balm for Reilly, who is in a special-needs class for autism. “He really needed to get back to school. The six months off was very isolating,” Mr. Nearing said. “Hopefully, he can get back to his routine quickly.”
Guilda Benhamou drove to Herzliah with her Grade 10 son to collect his books on Thursday. Both said the school and public health officials are taking a prudent course. Ms. Benhamou told CTV she hopes the closing is a warning to others who “have forgotten COVID-19 exists.” Her son said he has trouble concentrating with online learning, but the closing was the right move.
Public health officials have stressed the key to protecting schools is preventing community spread.
Dr. Cushman said he suspects the Fellowes outbreak originated in a commercial gym. The three infected school staffers each had common pre-existing conditions, including chronic headaches and seasonal allergies, which may have masked COVID-19 symptoms. “This is why these people were continuing to work, unfortunately,” Dr. Cushman said. “What bad luck.”
Dr. Drouin said the “principal source of these cases was the community, the acquisition of the virus was in the community.” She and other Quebec health and education officials continued to stress this week that schools are safe.
With a report from James Keller in Calgary
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