Catholic board, union investigating how virus spread at Hamilton school closed by outbreak

·3 min read

Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board is “thoroughly” investigating an outbreak that caused a west Mountain elementary school to close on Friday.

“At this point, I’m not aware of any information that would lead to conclusions,” chair Pat Daly told The Spectator.

An outbreak of COVID-19 was declared at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Elementary School on Wednesday after five positive cases — four staff and one student — were found. Since then, the board has reported four more student cases at the school, bringing the total to nine cases.

The board announced Thursday morning the school would close — a first in the Catholic board — on Friday as a result of the outbreak. Students are expected to return to in-person learning on March 1, he said.

St. Teresa of Avila is one of five schools across the province closed as a result of an outbreak.

As of Thursday evening, 95 students and 20 staff have been asked to self-isolate, including the four infected staff members, the Catholic board told The Spectator.

Nick de Koning, a union representative for the Hamilton-Wentworth chapter of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), said he has spoken to “every one” of the members who tested positive, as well as some who are self-isolating.

“Based on those conversations, it doesn’t appear that they were lax about protocols,” he said.

The union is looking for answers that could explain the outbreak.

“What we’re interested in is not getting somebody in trouble, but trying to figure out what happened there and what can we learn from there,” he said. “Because clearly something happened there that we need to learn from.”

Testing will be available for asymptomatic staff and students at St. Teresa of Avila on Saturday.

There are also outbreaks at St. Ann Catholic Elementary School and A.M. Cunningham Elementary School, both in central Hamilton, each with two infected students.

Hamilton public health says there is no evidence of any of the new variants being involved in school outbreaks “at this time.”

“We know that what happens in schools reflects what is happening in the community when it comes to COVID-19,” spokesperson James Berry said in an email to The Spectator. “We continue to support the recommended enhanced health and safety measures.”

“I think it’s critical to not jump to any conclusions on an outbreak,” Dr. Sarah Khan, associate medical director of infection prevention and control with Hamilton Health Sciences, said in an email to The Spectator.

She said there could be a number of explanations for the high case count, which she said she “agrees” is higher than in previous school outbreaks.

On Friday, the Catholic board reported three new cases of the virus in students at St. Mark Catholic Elementary School in Stoney Creek.

In a Feb. 19 letter to families, principal Grace Cino said that public health “has determined that there is no epidemiological link between these and an earlier case at the school, and therefore no outbreak will be declared.”

A student case was also reported at St. Mark on Thursday.

Since Monday, the Catholic board has reported a total of 22 cases — 12 students, nine staff and one “third-party employee.”

“Clearly, the numbers for this week were higher than any other week,” Daly said. “But I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that that’s what we’re going to see now going forward.”

Daly said staff are looking into what might have contributed to a high case count, and whether there is anything the board can do differently.

“I think if we saw the trends again next week, whether in our own board or any board ... then I think for sure that there are a number of other questions to ask,” he said.

Kate McCullough, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator