As coronavirus creeps into at least 5 N.L. schools, education officials defend delivery of information
At least five schools in Newfoundland and Labrador have been affected by COVID-19 cases so far this school year, as an outbreak in central Newfoundland continues to grow.
Lakewood Academy in Glenwood, Macdonald Drive Elementary in St. John's, and MSB Regional Academy in Middle Arm were all notified by the Health Department this week of cases, both confirmed and presumptive, within their communities.
Laval High School in Placentia has also had a case, according to a Newfoundland and Labrador English School District spokesperson.
Meanwhile, there are now 10 cases at New World Island Academy in Summerford, where classes have been suspended as a result of the outbreak, according to Dr. Rosann Seviour, acting chief medical officer of health. The school will transition to online learning next week.
At a media briefing Friday, Seviour said a case has been identified at a school in Baie Verte.
"There's one school … there that has one case that is now under investigation," she said. "There's no signs at this point that there's any transmission within the school."
That school was not mentioned in an email Friday afternoon from an district spokesperson.
Education Minister Tom Osborne and district CEO Tony Stack spoke to reporters Friday to address the uptick in coronavirus in schools this week.
As soon as public health officials identify a case of COVID-19 in a school, Stack said, the Department of Health contacts the district. The district's regional assistant director then contacts the school and relays the necessary information.
"When public health gives us a contact, we look after things right away, instantly, and school communities are given a generic letter," he said.
He said the Health Department and the district work together to notify potential contacts, and the district communicates with potential contacts directly.
Education minister defends transparency of department
Osborne responded to calls by parents and by Opposition education critic Barry Petten to be more transparent about COVID-19 in the province's schools.
"The school district needs to be front-and-centre on these issues, keeping parents up to date on the latest developments," said Petten in a media release Friday.
Osborne said Petten's release created "unnecessary additional fear and anxiety" for school communities, arguing the public health division and the school board provide the necessary information as soon as possible.
"As soon as the English school district has information from public health, that information is then forwarded to the school community," he said.
Osborne said the Health and Education departments must strike a balancing act when releasing information so families can stay informed while maintaining privacy of individuals with COVID-19.
"What we can't do is provide specific enough information that you can identify the individual or individuals who've been impacted," he said.
In an interview following the briefing, Jim Dinn, NDP MHA and the party's education critic, slammed the department's communication strategy. He said the department needs to provide more detailed information about COVID-19 in schools so families can determine their risk.
"Is it students? Is it teachers? Should we be worried about it?"
He noted the department does not generally provide location-based alerts for COVID-19 exposure in schools like the ones Public Health gives for other public places, leaving families to wonder who has been exposed.
"That is the uncertainty that is unacceptable."
The Health Department announced 45 new confirmed and 18 new presumptive cases of COVID-19 on Friday, mostly in the Central Health region. There are 109 active cases of COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador.
With files from Mark Quinn and Patrick Butler