An elementary school in Deer Lake has closed its doors for two days, after a student tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday morning, the first instance of a case within the Newfoundland and Labrador school system.
Elwood Elementary will be closed Monday and Tuesday, Education Minister Tom Osborne announced at a press conference Monday afternoon.
Osborne said the student's test results came back around 8 a.m. Monday, sparking the swift reversal from prior messaging from the school district, which had previously said schools were open in the town, with school buses having begun their morning runs before word of the closure came.
Students at Elwood Elementary are grouped into classroom cohorts to minimize their contacts as part of the English school district's COVID-19 operating plan, but Osborne said in this case officials decided to close the entire school and not just keep one class home.
"Because this is the first instance, I would rather that we acted with an abundance of caution then to look back and think that we should have," Osborne said.
Osborne said the closure ensures effective contact testing, but that any closure beyond Wednesday could cause extra anxiety for a community already dealing with significant amounts of stress.
"We reached the right balance with two days. I think a week would have sent the wrong messages," Osborne said.
Student's connection to previous case
The student is a close contact of a previously announced positive case, officials said Monday at an earlier press conference that saw Premier Andrew Furey temporarily suspend the Atlantic bubble. The Western Health region now has 10 active cases, six of them connected to each other. Those connected cases prompted the Town of Deer Lake to go into lockdown over the weekend, with its town council asking people to stay home and non-essential businesses to close.
"This is scary for a lot of people and for a lot of us," Mayor Dean Ball told CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning.
No schools are closed elsewhere in the province due to COVID-19. There are 23 active cases in the province, and a new travel alert as of Monday, with anyone who flew aboard Air Canada Flight 8880 from Halifax to Deer Lake, arriving on Thursday to call for testing.
Watch the full press conference below:
Ball later told CBC News testing went well on Monday for the students. A testing site was set up in the parking lot of the town office.
"We were really pleased with how really quick we got through that," he said. "On the bright side of this it was a good day to get that done."
But, Ball said, the ordeal has been nerve-wracking for parents.
Parents, students notified
Close contacts of the student within the Deer Lake school system were notified Monday morning, said Tony Stack, the CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District.
Stack said very few children showed up anyway.
"I would imagine it was apprehension within the community — understandably so — so the attendance rates were very low, less that 25 per cent," he said.
For students and staff who were not called by public health, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said they should monitor themselves for symptoms but recognize that brief contact such as passing someone in a hallway presents a slim chance of exposure.
"Those are very low risk, they're very short periods of interaction, so they're not considered to put somebody at risk for COVID-19 exposure," she said.
Teachers remained at work at Elwood Elementary on Monday preparing online learning lessons for Tuesday, said Stack.
"Tomorrow there could be activities. We're asking parents to be prepared for that connection outreach," he said.
Ball said reopening is pending on test results which are expected on Tuesday.
Both Stack and Osborne said the Elwood Elementary closure isn't an exact template to follow if there are more school-related COVID-19, and it may not be necessary to shut down an entire school in the future.
Increase health measures: NLTA
Ahead of Monday's media conference with Stack and Osborne, the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association (NLTA) issued a media release, saying it had concerns, given the latest case.
Ingram has been calling for mandatory face masks for all students, as well as physical barriers for teachers. Students younger than Grade 7 — such as those at Elwood Elementary — do not have to wear masks, except on school buses.
"Our position since March has been that we've had concerns about the discrepancy and inconsistency between the safety measures we see in place in public venues throughout this entire province and what's not in our school system," Ingram told CBC News shortly after Monday's news conference. "We think now is the time, more than ever, to reassess why those measures in our schools are less than seen in these venues."
Ingram said he has fielded several phone calls from parents raising the same concerns.
Ingram said the NLTA also takes issue with people accessing schools for extracurricular activities like sports. At Monday's press conference, Stack did say that could be adjusted on a regional basis.
"If we have to curtail extracurricular activities in a particular area, and Deer Lake would be one that we'd be looking at, then we will certainly do that," he told reporters.
There were no changes to current district health and safety policies announced during Monday's news conference, although Stack said current public health measures within schools would be re-emphasized.
As the current scenario plays out in Deer Lake and public health officials do their work, Osborne asked for patience from the community.
"I know there is significant concern in the community of Deer Lake today and I certainly appreciate this concern gets amplified for people when their children are involved," he said.
Bus of hockey players turned around after COVID scare
A small sense of relief is being expressed by Glenn Littlejohn, president of the U18 Major Hockey League.
He told CBC Radio's On The Go how the Western Kings were on the way to play the East Coast Blizzard. A bus with 25 players and team staff were headed to the Southern Shore arena, from Deer Lake, when they were stopped in Whitbourne.
A team official got a call that he was a close contact of a previous COVID-19 positive case in Deer Lake. Littlejohn said the bus stopped immediately.
"It wasn't really a hard decision," he said in an interview on Monday, noting the safety of the team and the general public is the top priority.
He said everyone on the bus was wearing masks and as spaced out as possible. The bus turned back around, and the team official stayed in the front of the bus.
The team official has since learned his test was negative, but precautions remain in place. He is staying away from the team for 14 days.
"This is something we probably expected," he said, given the pandemic continues to swirl, "and hopefully we can just move on."