Winnipeg principal wants stricter rules for going to school following COVID-19 exposures

By | September 14, 2020

The principal of a Winnipeg school where a student tested positive for COVID-19 says it may be time to regulate who can come to class more strictly.

Lorne Belmore, the principal of Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute, is calling on schools to take provincial guidelines a step further and prohibit students who have been tested while asymptomatic from coming to school while they await their results.

On Sunday, the province reported one person had attended the school last week before testing positive for COVID-19. It was one of two Winnipeg school exposures announced Sunday after an individual who had been to John Pritchard School also tested positive, the province said.

Belmore said he learned on Saturday a Grade 12 student in his school had tested positive. The student was in the West End school on Wednesday morning and Thursday afternoon, the province reported Sunday.

School officials screen students before they come into the the building, Belmore says. They follow the COVID-19 screening tool, which does not forbid people from entering if they’ve recently been tested but are asymptomatic.

In a news release, the province noted both cases at the schools were asymptomatic while in school. It’s unknown if they were tested while asymptomatic or got tested after developing symptoms.

The province doesn’t require asymptomatic people to self-isolate after getting tested, unless the individual was identified as a close contact of a known case of COVID-19. But Belmore wants schools to take a more cautious approach.

“It’s not my place to make that policy change,” he said.

“It’s a matter of rethinking how we deal with asymptomatic individuals and, you know, part of the screening questions have to be a little more strongly reinforced in terms of have you been tested for COVID?”

Masks are mandatory on school buses for all students, but in schools they’re compulsory for grades 4 and up. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Students awaiting test results could work from home through remote learning, Belmore suggested, but that would require a policy change from the province.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, says the screening protocols that are in place are working so far. As of Monday, five schools in the province have had possible COVID-19 exposures since classes resumed.

“Although we’ve had now five schools affected, each and every case was in an asymptomatic person, which means that our screening is working, that we’re not having symptomatic people back there, and in most of those cases, we’re not even identifying close contacts that need to self-isolate,” he said at a news conference on Monday.

All five individuals at the schools followed the public health rules, Roussin said. Some were tested while asymptomatic, while others were tested following symptom onset.

“The important thing to know is that they were at school when they were asymptomatic. So they weren’t symptomatic at school,” Roussin said.

Parents call on province for more information

On Sunday afternoon, the province reported a person who went to John Pritchard School in North Kildonan all day on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday had tested positive for COVID-19. The individual was asymptomatic while at the school.

The province said the affected cohorts would be notified, but parents say the letter they received from the school was vague. 

“They didn’t specify which cohort, which grades or where they were in the school, which is a little bit concerning,” said Britney Asplund, a mother of a Grade 6 student.

“It could be in her cohort. She could be around that person, and it’s worrisome.”

Asplund is considering keeping her daughter home from school until she learns more.

Catherine Harder said she’s frustrated by the lack of information from the school.

“I have three children that are in different grades and at different sections of the school at each time of day. For us to not know the age or even just a general state of where they’ve been … it’s frustrating,” she said.

Kelly Barkman, superintendent for the River East Transcona School Division, which includes John Pritchard School, said it was thoroughly cleaned on Sunday when the division was informed of the case.

“[We] immediately initiated our plan for a positive case in our schools or buildings that includes a deep clean of the school as well as using an electrostatic fogger which can disinfect surface areas in minutes,” he said.

“The school has also communicated to their school community with a letter from Public Health.”

The province said it doesn’t release details of cases at schools “to protect the privacy of the individual and to reduce any possible stigma.”

Asplund and Harder said they understand that, but they need more to go on.

“I get the personal information and the lack of sharing. Just tell me they’ve been in a classroom A, B and C.

“It’s very, very vague.”

Tom Murphy, whose grandson goes to John Pritchard School, said more needs to be done to protect children from the virus, and that starts by ensuring they’re physically distancing.

“We have to start thinking about places we can move children out of their school so there aren’t so many in a classroom,” the former principal said. 

“You can’t do cohorts in the schools we built 100 years ago. These schools are old,” he said, and the classrooms are small.

Handwashing and access to sanitizer is imperative to prevent the spread of germs, he said.

WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin on avoiding stigmatizing people who test positive in school system

The first positive COVID-19 case identified in Manitoba’s school system is a student who attended the first day of class on Tuesday while asymptomatic and “did everything that they were supposed to do,” says Manitoba’s top doctor. 0:41

On Monday, public health officials warned of a possible COVID-19 exposure at Beaverlodge School in Winnipeg’s Pembina Trails School Division.

The warning follows potential exposures connected to a Grade 5 and 6 classroom in École New Era School in Brandon on Saturday, Brandon School Division superintendent Marc Casavant said in a news release that day.

Last week, the province warned a Grade 7 student who later tested positive was in class at Winnipeg School Division’s Churchill High School and used Winnipeg Transit while asymptomatic.

The province publicly announced the Churchill student was in Grade 7, while the Winnipeg School Division also let parents know the exact classroom the student was in. However, no information like that was given about the Daniel McIntyre student.

On Monday, Roussin said the province will no longer release information that could identify individuals with COVID-19 in schools, after a “tremendous amount of stigmatizing behaviour” following the case at Churchill.

“We really want to ensure that Manitobans are aware that stigma does not help. It hurts our chances of dealing with this virus,” he said.

Winnipeg School Division spokesperson Radean Carter said students in kindergarten to Grade 8 are kept in small cohorts so the school system can immediately identify exactly where they were the whole day.

“With the older students, you have to look at what classes they had to determine what parts of the school had to be extra cleaned,” she said. Daniel McIntyre has grades 9-12.

Cleaning has taken place and there is little risk to students because the affected student wore a mask and practised physical distancing, Carter said.

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