Ottawa school with largest COVID-19 outbreak set to reopen on Tuesday

Some parents have concerns as the Barrhaven school with the largest school COVID-19 outbreak in Ottawa during the pandemic prepares to reopen on Tuesday.

Ottawa Public Health has announced all students can return to St. Benedict Catholic elementary school in Barrhaven on Oct. 12, two weeks after the school was closed due to COVID-19 transmission.

"I will say a lot of parents are apprehensive about sending children back," says Justin Peter Milley, co-chair of the St. Benedict School Parent Council.

The St. Benedict Parent Council held a meeting Thursday evening to discuss the outbreak and plans to reopen the school.

"As a parent when you hear the focus on minimizing the adverse reaction from parents by covering themselves and what they didn't do wrong as opposed to the health and safety of your children, that doesn't sit well," said Milley, adding his two children enrolled at the school have tested positive for COVID-19.

As of Friday, 37 students at the school had tested positive for COVID-19. There are 17 active cases at the school.

"All of the cases, the period of self-isolation for high-risk contacts will be over by Tuesday and so that's why Ottawa Public Health has decided it will be ok to have us open the school," said Mary Donaghy, Ottawa Catholic School Board Associate Director of Education.

"So no one related to those cases at the school will have to self-isolate any longer."

In a letter to parents, guardians and staff, Ottawa Public Health said it has reviewed all COVID-19 protocols in the school ahead of the return to classes.

"All proper infection control measures (e.g. cleaning/disinfection, signage) have been reviewed with the school administration to make sure that best practices are in place to prevent COVID-19 transmission," said the letter.

Classes were cancelled and the school was closed back on Sept. 28 due to a COVID-19 outbreak at the school.  The health unit said it closed the school "out of an abundance of caution" as the investigation suggested there was evidence of transmission to several cohorts in the school.

Milley says he thinks the Ottawa Catholic School Board, Ottawa Public Health and the school have been doing a "lot of work and a lot of effort", but the messaging hasn't been great.

"The messaging felt more like blame management and covering of tracks – at least messaging that they did nothing wrong and that this stuff is just like bad luck and it just happens," said Milley in an interview on Newstalk 580 CFRA's Ottawa Now with Kristy Cameron.

"Which isn't not really the kind of message we want to hear as parents."

MIlley says officials promised to answer questions parents have raised about how COVID-19 spread in the school. 

"What I told them is you have a lot of frustrated parents, but in three months if this happens again the frustration is going to turn to outrage," said Milley.

Students can return to class on Tuesday, as long as they aren't a high-risk contact of a case.

"Please note that if you were identified as a high-risk contact of a person with COVID-19, you must still isolate until the date provided to you by OPH via the automated messaging," said a letter to parents, guardians and staff of St. Benedict school.

"All others who were dismissed as part of the outbreak can return to school."

COVID-19 TESTS IN SCHOOLS

Take-home COVID-19 tests are now available for students and staff with symptoms at all schools in Ottawa.

Medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches announced this week that Ottawa Public Health and CHEO are offering free take-home PCR COVID tests for students and staff in schools, "to address the increased demand for testing in schools."

"They are offered to students and staff who develop symptoms of COVID-19 or are identified as a high-risk contact and will be available in all schools this week," said Etches in a statement. "The take-home test kits include a combined mouth and nose swab that is easily administered and non-invasive."

The PCR tests are the same tests used when you book an appointment at an assessment centre.