Nfld. & Labrador

Possible COVID-19 exposure in schools has communities anxious, left with questions

After a school staff member tested positive for the COVID-19 virus in the Western Health region last week, and the teachers' union had questions about clear guidelines in Harbour Breton after a cluster of cases, there is some anxiety swirling for people with school-age children.

'There are some people who are genuinely worried'

The Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association wants guidelines and masks rules in schools to mirror those in other public spaces. (Oksana Kuzmina/Adobe Stock)

After a school staff member tested positive for the COVID-19 virus in the Western Health region last week, and the teachers' association had questions about clear guidelines in Harbour Breton after a cluster of cases, there is some anxiety swirling for people with school-age children.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said Friday a female staff member between the ages of 20 and 39 in the Western region tested positive, resulting in some children being identified for testing.

The potential exposure was more than 14 days ago, Fitzgerald said, meaning that parents were told their kids do not have to quarantine, but were asked to self-isolate until results came back. The source of that case was determined to be connected to travel.

But since that announcement, some people in the community have been worried about a lack of information, says St. George's resident Dave Callahan.

Hopefully things don't change over the Christmas break.- Dean Ingram

"There's been no announcement to come out to clarify what's rumour and what's not. That's the biggest part of the problem here," Callahan said Monday. "Sometimes it's not the information, it's the lack of it."

Callahan's son is in college now, but he has nieces and nephews in the K-12 system in the Bay St. George area, where parents have been speculating on social media about which schools have been affected.

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District said it will not be identifying the school where the exposure happened, and normal operations are continuing. Fitzgerald said information about individual cases would not be released, citing privacy.

"Public health officials have confirmed there is no need to alter normal operations at any school at this time. As such, all schools will be operating as usual today for students and staff — apart from those impacted by weather conditions," the district said in a statement Monday morning.

"The safety of students and staff is the district's top priority. We will continue to work closely with public health officials and, if there is a recommendation which impacts the operation of a school, we will adhere to the medical advice."

Fitzgerald said Monday that parents of affected children were contacted directly for testing.

'Attendance was extraordinarily low'

But Callahan said social media creates the capacity to "sensationalize" concerns, and without timely public statements, rumours can escalate.

"There are some people who are genuinely worried, and … I've seen them say that they are keeping their kids back," he said.

"I guess there are people who wonder, was that contact list deep enough? Because my children may have been around or near kids that were involved — in the hallways or by the lockers or this type of thing."

Parents keeping their children home from school when there are cases in the community is also happening in Harbour Breton, said Dean Ingram, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association.

NLTA president Dean Ingramis says the association is to have heightened cleaning protocols underway in schools while the buildings are empty. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Harbour Breton had a cluster of cases, with the source of one case of infection proving elusive amid contact tracing, prompting public health to ask every resident to get tested.

Ingram said school attendance speaks to "the level of anxiety and angst" swirling in communities hit by clusters of infections in recent weeks.

"We know that, in Harbour Breton specifically, the attendance was extraordinarily low all of last week. We know that previous to that, in Deer Lake, attendance was extraordinarily low during that period of time," he said.

Ingram said the NLTA is still pushing for stricter safety measures in schools, similar to those in other public buildings. He also said that in Harbour Breton, the town was able to ask non-essential businesses to close voluntarily, while the school remained open.

"Those same individuals are expected to attend class when we know in our province's schools at present there is little or no physical distancing, there [are] weak or no mask requirements," Ingram said.

Fitzgerald said Friday there was "no evidence" of transmission in schools in Harbour Breton, adding that there are criteria for closing a classroom cohort, and then closing a school, and Harbour Breton had not met those criteria.

Meanwhile, Ingram said school staff are getting ready for the holiday break starting at the end of the week, while the NLTA is asking to have heightened cleaning protocols underway in schools while the buildings are empty.

"We certainly appreciate that the district is trying to be proactive. We know there's a memo sent out to school communities advising to take personal effects out of the school. We support that. This level of proactivity is something that would have been beneficial in the early days of COVID, from March onwards," Ingram said.

"Hopefully things don't change over the Christmas break, but if they do, it's better if students have their materials home with them."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Patrick Butler and The St. John's Morning Show

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