Hamilton and Niagara schools get COVID-19 cases, but aren't spreading them

COVID-19 cases are climbing in Hamilton, Niagara and across Ontario, some of which are infecting students and educators —but the virus isn't spreading in schools, which means it likely won't be enough to shut down classrooms.

Public health isn't seeing outbreaks in schools, which means they may stay open as the pandemic persists

A bottle of hand sanitizer sits in front of the entrance of a Hamilton-area school. Local schools are getting COVID-19 cases, but don't appear to be spreading them. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

COVID-19 cases are climbing in Hamilton, Niagara and across Ontario, some of which are infecting students and educators, but local medical officers of health say the cases aren't spreading in schools and don't seem to be moving from student to student or teacher to teacher.

"It's not the schools where we're seeing the issues right now. It is the things we choose to do in our private lives, and that's where we need to have most of the emphasis," Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health, said Monday.

"In terms of schools and keeping them open, at this point here in Hamilton, we've seen a lot of really good work done by all the schools. They've paid a lot of attention. They're moving forward. They're figuring out how to deal with the tricky issue of kids get these mild illnesses, and what is COVID and what is not."

INTERACTIVE | Use this map to find COVID-19 cases in local schools

There have been doubts about reopening schools, with some families and educators predicting that they would close within weeks.

Many complaints have been voiced about the lack of physical distancing, the 10 per cent of Hamilton public school students not wearing masks and the disruption of social bubbles/circles, among other things.

School officials have also said infections in classes are unavoidable if the virus is in the community. 

Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Niagara's chief medical officer of health previously said 15 per cent of Niagara's population is either a student or school staff member. That means roughly one in every seven cases will be linked to a school.

Roughly two dozen schools in the area have been affected by a COVID-19 case, but just two of them — Eastdale Secondary School in Welland and Cobblestone Elementary School in Paris — have outbreaks.

Most new school cases started popping up two weeks ago when elementary and high schools began welcoming students into class.

Eighteen local schools are still dealing with a recent infection as of Monday afternoon.

But if there aren't outbreaks in schools, Hirji said the chance of them shutting down is a "a pretty low likelihood."

"Thus far, I think we've seen some good news in that with the exception of Eastdale Secondary School (which has an outbreak), we've not seen any transmission within the schools," he said on Monday.

"And even in Eastdale, it's just a small number of cases there. It's good news that what we've put in place in terms of preventing infection is working, it's just unfortunate there are more cases in the community and therefore, more cases associated with school."

Hirji said one of the keys to avoiding outbreaks like those in long-term care homes and hospitals is the fact that if you're infected and go to school, you can simply leave and learn or work from home to avoid exposing others. 

Richardson said it's too early to tell how the virus may impact local schools going forward, but there are good reasons to keep classes open.

"We need to remember with schools that there are great benefits of kids going to school, from a mental health perspective, from a developmental perspective, from an academic perspective."

Attention parents, students and teachers: We want to hear from you!

We hope you'll use this form to tell us about school conditions, how classes are going or whatever other pressing issues are on your mind this September in Hamilton, Niagara, St. Catharines and Burlington.

With files from Samantha Craggs


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