Parents question reopening school with Ottawa's largest COVID-19 outbreak

An Ottawa elementary school with one of the largest active COVID-19 outbreaks in the province is set to reopen Tuesday despite school and health officials being unable to pinpoint a clear cause.

St. Benedict School outbreak linked to 37 total and 17 active cases

Ottawa elementary school to reopen despite lack of answers about source of COVID-19 outbreak

2 years ago
Duration 1:01
Mary Donaghy, associate director of education with the Ottawa Catholic School Board, says health officials have been unable to pinpoint the origin of the COVID-19 outbreak at St. Benedict School in Barrhaven, which now includes 37 student cases.

Parents are questioning how an Ottawa elementary school can reopen when health officials couldn't pinpoint the cause of the city's largest school COVID-19 outbreak yet.

St. Benedict School in Barrhaven shuttered its doors Sept. 28, the first of what's now three Ottawa schools closed because of concerns about spread across cohorts.

Shortly before a parent council meeting Thursday evening, which included Ottawa Public Health (OPH) on hand to answer questions from worried parents, the board announced the school would reopen on Tuesday.

The Ottawa Catholic School Board's associate director of education and COVID-19 lead told the meeting an OPH team could find no clear problems with the preventative measures the school was taking.

"I would love to be able to … watch that virus and say, you know, where exactly did that transmission happen? And we just don't know," said Mary Donaghy. 

"We probably heard it five or six times that it's just bad luck, it's unfortunate," said Sarah Hackett, who listened into the meeting.  "That just didn't make sense to parents."

Sarah Hackett says her daughter's senior kindergarten class was the first to be sent home at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak at St. Benedict School in Barrhaven. Her daughter received two close contact notifications but tested negative twice. (Submitted by Sarah Hackett)

Her sentiments were echoed by Claudia Wilson, co-chair of the parent council with two children who attend the school.

"The fact that we can't find a cause, we're about to open up the school in four days time, what is to prevent this from happening again?" she told CBC.

Donaghy told parents the board is considering some tweaks to its COVID-19 procedures, including having students keep their masks on during recess even when playing with others from their same cohort, and having parents confirm that they have followed daily COVID-19 screening tools.

More than double the cases of previous top outbreak

As of Thursday, a total of 37 cases were linked to the outbreak by OPH, all in students. Previously, the city's largest school outbreak had 17 total cases.

The board tracks active cases rather than total ones and lists 17 active cases at St. Benedict.

It's Ottawa's largest active COVID-19 outbreak of any kind and while different health units and school boards share different kinds of data, signs point to it being one of the largest active school outbreaks in Ontario.

      Justin Peter Milley, another co-chair of the parent council, said he doesn't blame anyone for the outbreak but wondered how an investigation could turn up nothing conclusive about the cause.

      "If a plane crashes, [whether] it's an accident or not, it's analyzed and we look at procedures on how to improve that and prevent it from happening again. So I just feel like this is kind of being shrugged off," he said at the meeting.

      "Because three months from now, I feel like parents' frustration is going to move to outrage if this occurs again."

      Milley has children in Grade 1 and senior kindergarten. Both have tested positive for the illness and are asymptomatic, but his two youngest children — one of whom is immunocompromised — have started showing symptoms.

      "It really comes down to when is it going to affect the rest of us?" he told CBC. "It's been what, two weeks now, and it's still impacting our family in an unknown kind of way."

      Wilson said the council may look at taking its own steps outside what the school board can do, such as purchasing rapid antigen tests to distribute among parents. The province has said that's not an effective strategy and has given the power for such campaigns to health units.