COVID-19 in Ottawa schools is on the rise, but still below peaks seen last fall

The total active cases in Ottawa publicly funded school boards jumped from 24 on Feb. 10 to 71 on Feb. 24.

Dawna LaBonté, seen with her and son, Marc-Antoine, 11, has major concerns about contact-tracing lag times she fears are keeping kids in school too long after a case has been identified in their class.

The number of active cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa schools has tripled in the last two weeks.

Ottawa Public Health had warned that cases might rise when in-person classes resumed on Feb. 1 as more students got tested for the virus.

That indeed has been the case, with total active cases in Ottawa publicly funded school boards rising from 24 on Feb. 10 to 71 on Feb. 24.

That total is slightly lower than the number of active cases reported in Ottawa schools the last week in December before Christmas break, when cases hovered around 75 to 85 a day.

And it’s significantly lower than cases reported at schools during Ottawa’s COVID-19 spike in early October. From Oct. 5 to 9, for instance, Ottawa schools reported around 150 to 200 active cases each day.

The number of active cases is one measure that gives an indication of trends.

It’s difficult to obtain a complete picture of COVID-19 in schools based on the data released publicly. School boards report active cases, so when a case is resolved it drops off the daily tally. The province reports total new cases by school, but only for the previous two weeks.

However, with more contagious variants of COVID-19 threatening to push the province into a third wave of the pandemic, parents are watching all the available numbers closely.

The province on Thursday reported that there have been a total of 92 cases of COVID-19 at 55 schools in Ottawa boards over the last two weeks. There are about 328 schools at the four local boards, most of them within the city of Ottawa.

Across Ontario, 675 school-related cases have been reported in the last two weeks, bringing the total number of cases since schools opened last fall to 8,361, the province reported Thursday. Currently 8.9 per cent of  schools have a reported case, and 18 schools have been closed due to outbreaks.

COVID-19 in schools tends to reflect the rates in the community, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce emphasized Thursday in the legislature when asked about outbreaks in Thunder Bay. Lakehead Public Schools announced Thursday that at the recommendation of the local medical officer of health all classes would shift to virtual learning on March 1.

Each COVID-19 case at school typically has a ripple effect on many others as classmates and others who have been in close contact at school are sent home to self-isolate.

Ottawa mom Dawna LaBonté has both of her children at home in self-isolation this week because they were in close contact with someone at their schools who tested positive.

LaBonté said she has no hesitation sending her kids to in-person classes because there are safety protocols in place. “The kids are wearing masks and they are being responsible. For the mental health of my kids, I think it’s best for them to be in school.”

She says both her children were tested for COVID-19, a process that was quick and easy.

However, she has major concerns about contact-tracing lag times she fears are keeping kids in school too long after a case has been identified in their class.

She received emails from Ottawa Public Health on Feb. 21 for both her children, saying they had been identified as high-risk close contacts of someone with COVID-19 at their schools.

The email about her daughter Madeleine, 14, said she must isolate through Feb. 25, or four days after the letter was received. The email suggested Madeleine should get tested for COVID-19, but not before Feb. 18 — three days before the email was sent.

Since close contacts must isolate for 14 days from the time they were exposed to the virus, that suggests her daughter was exposed around Feb. 11, said LaBonté. Madeleine was in school all last week, from Feb. 15 to 19.

Her son, Marc-Antoine, 11, goes to another school. LaBonté already knew his friend, a classmate, had tested positive on Feb. 16, so she had kept her son at home from that date, anticipating he would be identified as a close contact.

The Feb. 21 OPH letter about Marc-Antoine said he should isolate through Feb. 26.

“When I see we might be going into another lockdown, then I see how late these contact tracers are, it absolutely makes me want to lose my mind,” says LaBonté. “Please help us help you. We want to do this, we just need you to help us. Maybe they need to hire more people.

“I don’t know how to manage public health. But what I do know is that finding out you need to self-isolate a week after the contact has happened is too late.”

Ottawa Public Health has said that it gives priority to contact tracing in school cases.

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