New Brunswick

Parents should be told about COVID-19 cases in child's school, epidemiologist says

Epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan says government officials should notify all parents of a positive COVID-19 test in their school - and the whole class be sent home and tested.

Public health has told parents they should not expect any kind of notification

When possible, students will be physically distanced in the classroom. (Letha Henry)

An epidemiologist who's been following New Brunswick's COVID-19 response doesn't agree with the province's decision to not automatically inform parents about a positive test in their child's school.

"I can understand why they've made that choice. It's not the choice I would have made though. I think I would err on the side of complete transparency at this point," said Raywat Deonandan, a global-health epidemiologist and an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. 

He said all parents in that school should be alerted. 

"For example, tell parents, 'A case has been found in your school. However, do not worry there is no reason to pull your child out of school. Those exposed individuals have been removed and are being tested and you will be informed of the results of this testing within a week or so.'"

On Thursday, the province's chief medical officer of health said each situation will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Dr. Jennifer Russell said parents should not count on being told if a case of COVID-19 shows up at their child's school.

Raywat Deonandan, a global-health epidemiologist and an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, believes all parents should be told when a positive test occurs at their child's school. (Supplied by Raywat Deonandan)

She said "only affected persons and families will be contacted." 

But who that includes isn't clear. She said it will be determined "based on risk assessment." 

The guide for parents says "Public Health will, through contact tracing and risk management, make decisions on who self-isolates. This may require an individual or several individuals, a classroom or multiple classrooms or even a school population to self-isolate." 

Decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis, she said. 

Russell said it was important to protect the privacy of a student who tests positive. She said "we don't want people to be labelled." 

She also asked parents to "trust in the process." 

She said her department fully expects the virus to surface at New Brunswick schools. Officials are "managing risks, not eliminating them." 

When asked for clarity on the issue on Friday morning, the communications director for the Department of Health said the response will be dictated by the level of contact with the infected person. 

"Public Health will be responsible for contact tracing, and the classroom bubble will be helpful in determining who should be contacted," explained Bruce Macfarlane.

"Some individuals may be required to self-isolate to limit the spread of the disease. This could be a few people, a classroom, multiple classrooms or even an entire school, depending on the level of contact with the infected person."

The infected person will be sent home immediately and won't be able to return to the classroom until public health officials give the OK, but it's not clear what will happen with that child's classmates. 

Classmates should be tested

Deonandan said if someone in a classroom tests positive, every student in that class should be sent home for self-isolation. 

He said it's prudent that everyone be sent home and tested. For maximum efficacy, he says the testing should wait a few days. 

"It's entirely possible to find one case in the class that did not manage to give it to anybody else. However, the caveat around that is sometimes it takes a few days for sufficient viral replication to take place so that the test will work."

That means you can't just send students home, test them immediately, and give them the green light to return to the classroom if the test is negative. 

Instead, the first test should be done after a few days and then repeated within 24 hours. 

On Thursday, during the first of twice-weekly news briefings that will continue until school starts, Education Minister Dominic Cardy said officials will continue to sort out the details of the province's back-to-school plan. 

He said to expect more details in the coming weeks. 

He did say that schools will remain open — no matter what recovery phase the province is in. 

 "Our intention is to keep the school systems open as long as Dr. Russell lets us," Cardy said.

"We've got to keep educating our kids," he said.  "We cannot let years and years go by. Otherwise we would be creating a lost generation. I don't think any of us want that."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.