'Keep cautious, kids': Student with COVID-19 at Winnipeg's John Pritchard School speaks out

A Grade 7 student from John Pritchard School — which has an outbreak of COVID-19— is sharing his experience with the virus and how he thinks it was spread.

Grade 7 student believes shared lunch hour, surfaces led to spread

John Pritchard School has an outbreak of at least 26 cases of COVID-19. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

It started with coughing and sneezing for one Grade 7 student at John Pritchard School. Over the next two weeks, he lost his senses of taste and smell, had some shortness of breath and constantly felt tired.

He's now one of at least 26 people linked to the school who are infected with COVID-19 — the biggest school outbreak in the province yet. The kindergarten to Grade 8 school in North Kildonan shifted about 250 students to remote learning last week, when health officials said seven cases had been identified there.

"It's kind of scary, because all of the schools in Manitoba, you're not expecting it to hit really hard in your school, an outbreak," said the boy, whom CBC News is not identifying.

He has some advice for parents and other students.

"As a kid, COVID-19 for kids with strong immune systems, it won't be as bad … but it's still a little scary. So, just keep cautious, kids," he said.

In the beginning

On Sept. 11, the 12-year-old woke up coughing and sneezing. Believing he had a cold, he stayed home from school. That was a Friday.

Two days later, provincial health officials released information about a positive case at the school — a person was in the building Tuesday through Thursday of that week while asymptomatic. 

The Grade 7 student got tested Monday and got his positive result Tuesday. He wonders if his exposure could have been tied to lunch hour, when all four Grade 7 classes ate together in the school gym. Although both cohorts, made up of two classes each, were on opposite sides of the gym, he said there were still about 80 students in the room.

"Kids weren't social distancing. They were talking without masks," he said. 

The buttons outside of the bathrooms were also a shared surface. Kids press them and the buttons light up to indicate a free stall, he said.

'Lessons learned'

Health officials have done a "fairly thorough" investigation and continue to look into the John Pritchard outbreak, said Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer.

"We're quite interested in lessons learned," said Dr. Brent Roussin on Thursday when asked about the school cases.

Public health officials have a "fairly good" understanding of the index case and how transmission occurred, he said. They are working with the school to better understand the outbreak.

Roussin said even with the use of masks, spacing and everyone's best efforts to follow guidelines, the challenge with this virus is that "you can't let your guard down."

"Young people can have very mild symptoms that sometimes can go unnoticed," he said.

The River East Transcona School Division said it is working to ensure all public health guidelines are in place and encourages the boy's family to speak to his school directly about concerns.

"Many of these details will be solidified closer to the date of return in conjunction with public health and what the pandemic response colour code the school will be in at that time," Amanda Gaudes, senior communications co-ordinator, said in an email to CBC News.

'I felt pretty ashamed'

The Grade 7 student said he knows of "about five" friends in his class who have also tested positive. Roussin said the cases have occurred in staff and students, but are primarily tied to the same cohort. 

"I felt pretty ashamed … [being] that one sick kid, and that no one would want to hang around me," said the boy.

That changed when he texted his friends and found out some of them were also positive.

"It made me feel a lot more comfortable, that I know what they're feeling and they know how I'm feeling."

Now mostly recovered, he is spending his extra time at home playing video games and trying to do his schoolwork while staying in touch with friends. He said various COVID-19 symptoms — like losing his sense of taste and smell, having a stomach ache, sore throat and diarrhea — have come and gone at different times.

"It was different" having to wear a mask around family in the house and wipe down everything he used.

"I had to stay in my room most of the time," he said.

Family tested

His family had to get tested as well, though the boy is the only one who tested positive, said his mother.

She said her son appeared to just have a cough and cold early on, with no signs of fever or fatigue.

She's impressed with how her son has handled everything.

"He's actually doing really well," said the mother, whom CBC News isn't naming. "But how do you not … you can't even snuggle with your kid, we're all stuck in our own rooms."

She hopes distancing measures are enforced within the school and on buses that take students to schools as well, as exposures have been linked to both the John Pritchard Winnipeg Transit and River East Transcona School Division school bus routes.

John Pritchard School remains at code orange, the second highest level on the province's scale, meaning extra measures are in place, like keeping students two metres apart. 

While he stays at home, the Grade 7 student said he enjoys learning remotely and would prefer to do more or a blend of the two.

He hopes his story helps other people know they don't have to be ashamed if they test positive and helps shed light on the importance of following the rules.

"Monitor your kids' symptoms, washing your hands, wiping things down. If your kid does have it, he'll probably survive," he said. "It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be."

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