About 200 students and staff at five French Catholic schools in Ottawa have been told to self-isolate because of possible exposure to COVID-19 aboard school buses, the city's medical officer of health said Tuesday.
Dr. Vera Etches told reporters that about 190 students and 10 staff were potentially in close contact with six positive cases.
All the elementary schools affected are part of the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est, the French Catholic board, and resumed in-person classes on Thursday.
Etches said the high number of students in isolation is due to possible exposure aboard school buses, and not in the classroom.
"We've taken an extra cautious approach to make sure that everyone on the bus, when they were with somebody that tested positive, that they're all sent home to isolate and to follow up," Etches said.
She said public health officials aren't confident the students were properly distanced aboard the buses in question, so they've all been told to isolate. She said she'd like to see clearer protocols for assigned seating so entire busloads of students don't need to be isolated because of potential exposure.
WATCH | Concerns about bus distancing:
The 200 people will need to isolate for 14 days starting from the last possible exposure, Etches said.
All high-risk contacts must self-isolate even if they have a negative test result, said Ottawa Public Health. People who test negative and later develop symptoms or test positive, need to self isolate for even longer than 14 days.
The only way a person told to self-isolate may return to school sooner than 14 days is if Ottawa Public Health determines they are no longer a high-risk contact.
People should not get tested any sooner than five days after the potential exposure, since it takes approximately five days for the virus to grow to levels where it's detectable by a test, Etches said.
Earlier, Etches told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning that in all six confirmed cases, the virus was not contracted at school. She reiterated that anyone living with someone who develops symptoms of the illness must self-isolate and get tested.
"Normally, going back to school there would be colds, there would be things that we'd just keep going [through] because they're not serious," Etches said. "This fall we all need to learn new behaviours of making sure if we have a cold-like symptom, it's not COVID."
Etches stressed that by following measures such as wearing masks and staying in assigned seats, staff and students at Ottawa's schools can minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19, and therefore avoid isolation.
"I want to underline that everything we do to help decrease transmission a little bit adds up," she said.
Students head back to class
In Ottawa, the first cohort of Grade 9 students attending high schools in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board high schools returned to in-person classes Tuesday morning.
The remaining high schoolers will go back over the next three days and elementary students at the public board return to school next week.
The youngest students at the Ottawa Catholic School Board return to class on Tuesday.
In all, five local boards are opening schools Tuesday. The Upper Canada District School Board is the only one in the region without students returning today.
English students in western Quebec started back in late August, while some students at French Catholic schools that follow a condensed school year started as early as Aug. 19.