HWDSB chair supports asymptomatic testing as Hamilton schools see 45 cases in 4 days

The chair of Hamilton's public school board supports asymptomatic testing in Hamilton schools as the number of COVID-19 cases in local students and staff continue to rise.

Dawn Danko says asymptomatic testing is the 'only way' we can really understand how severe COVID-19 spread is

The chair of Hamilton's public school board said she supports the use of asymptomatic testing in local schools as cases continue to rise. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The chair of Hamilton's public school board supports asymptomatic testing in Hamilton schools as the number of COVID-19 cases in local students and staff continue to rise.

Hamilton schools reported 10 more cases on Friday — that's 45 cases in four days.

"Given the nature of COVID where some cases are absolutely asymptomatic or have very minimal symptoms, and they often see this in younger people, asymptomatic testing is the only way we can really appreciate what the state of affairs are in Hamilton, in the community and in our schools," she said during a phone interview on Thursday.

Danko said previous Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) chair Alex Johnstone asked the province if it would extend the asymptomatic testing in schools it is doing in the Toronto area to include Hamilton.

"Other trustees and chair from other board have said, 'Don't forget the remote communities, don't forget the rural communities, don't forget the northern communities' because again, right now we know symptomatic cases that get tested, or someone is exposed and they get tested, then we find positive cases. But we also know there are positive cases that we don't, we can't detect, without doing asymptomatic testing."

WATCH | Hamilton's medical officer of health says schools aren't major sites of COVID-19 spread

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health, has said multiple times that schools don't seem to be spreading COVID-19.

"The risk in those early elementary grades, up to Grade 4, Grade 5, we really don't see much transmission there at all. We do occasionally see it in those that are in that slightly older age group up through Grade 8, and in the high schools. That's where there's really a greater risk of transmission, but still mostly we see it among the adults," she said on Dec. 7.

"They're not major sites at all for us. We have had the occasional outbreak, but those have all been low numbers."

Asymptomatic testing in schools revealed an outbreak

When asked again on Monday, Richardson acknowledged there is concern about schools reopening after the winter break if families decide to dismiss public health recommendations to avoid gatherings. But she deferred the answer to asymptomatic testing to the province, which has been running the voluntary four-week testing program. 

Testing began late last month for asymptomatic students, faculty and staff at select schools in Toronto, Peel and York regions, and in Ottawa.

It revealed an outbreak involving more than 20 cases was discovered at Thorncliffe Park Public School in Toronto, the first school where the program was deployed.

With the winter break approaching, there is concern families won't abide by public health recommendations and will gather during the holidays.

"People do gather around that Christmas holiday ... We would have people potentially coming back to school who may have engaged in a gathering larger than you're supposed to, increasing the risk [to others] and they would be asymptomatic, so it wouldn't necessarily be caught by screening," Danko said.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement on Friday afternoon that "as we continue to see increased rates of community transmission, our schools remain safe."

"To put this into perspective — eight out of ten schools in this province have no active COVID-19 cases at all and 99.66 per cent of students have never reported a case of COVID-19," he said.

The province said it has performed 4,544 tests in the first phase of asymptomatic testing for students, education staff, and families. Of those, 57 positives have been identified and 890 results are pending. The program will also be expanding, but there are few details on when and how.

Hamilton school outbreak grows

Three more staff and seven more students have tested positive for COVID-19 in Hamilton.

The outbreak at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Elementary School has grown to three cases after a third staff member was infected. They were last in the building on Friday, Dec. 11, says the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board (HWCDSB).

"There are no student contacts associated with this new case. Any staff who are required to self-isolate will be notified immediately by the school and will be contacted by Hamilton Public Health Services (HPHS) within the next two days," read a message to families.

"The school will continue to follow guidance from public health officials around infection prevention and control. As part of its COVID-19 action plan, the HWCDSB will undertake a deep cleaning and disinfection of all areas at the school occupied by the symptomatic individual and will ensure all preventive measures are in place."

The school has closed three classrooms.

A third staff member at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Elementary School has tested positive for COVID-19. (Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Elementary School/Facebook)

St. Jean de Brébeuf Catholic Secondary School now has five COVID-19 cases and five closed classrooms, but no outbreak.

The latest case was in a student who was in school last Friday.

St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School has a third case of COVID-19 and has closed four classes.

A student who was last in school on Monday got the virus. This school also doesn't have an outbreak.

On the public school side, Gordon Price Elementary School had its fourth COVID-19 case after two students tested positive. HWDSB says there's no outbreak.

"School administrators have notified all impacted families and staff members who are identified as a close contact. The students and staff members associated with the confirmed cases will self-isolate for 14 days. HPHS will connect with close contacts as part of their contact tracing process," read a message to families.

A student at Frank Panabaker North Elementary School tested positive, but had no school-related close contacts and wasn't related to the outbreak at the school.

Other new cases include:

  • A student at George L. Armstrong Elementary School.
  • A staff member at Ancaster Meadow Elementary School.
  • A student at Bernie Custis Secondary School.
  • A student at Eastdale Elementary School (third student this month, but no outbreak).