Following a serious COVID-19 outbreak at a French public school in Ottawa, some parents are threatening to keep their kids out of class unless they get assurances it's safe to return.
Sixteen students and one teacher at École publique secondaire Omer-Deslauriers tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, forcing the shutdown of all grades 7 and 8 classrooms by Nov. 4, and three more classes in the upper grades by Nov. 10.
I'm feeling very sad because I'm jeopardizing my daughter's education, but I'd rather keep her safe than the danger of sending her to school. - Idil Omar
Last Wednesday evening, parents received notice the children could return the following day, however the Conseil des écoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario (CEPEO) confirms about 40 per cent of the students did not immediately return.
"It has been very dramatic to many, many families," said Youcef Fouzar, a parent representative on the school council.
Fouzar said about half a dozen families have moved their children to another school in a different board. He said the council is demanding assurances from CEPEO that the school will be safe, as well as better communication with parents.
Superintendent points to surrounding community
CEPEO superintendent of education Sylvie Tremblay said the outbreak at the school occurred because COVID-19 rates in the surrounding community are high.
"More often than not, when there are cases in any school, it's because of behaviours and practices that people have outside of the school," Tremblay said.
CBC did ask to speak with the principal of the school, but was referred to Tremblay for comment.
But parents at Omer-Deslauriers aren't buying that explanation. There have been no cases at the neighbouring English high school or middle school, and only two at the nearby French Catholic elementary school.
Instead, they're pointing to overcrowding in two Grade 7 International Baccalaureate (IB) classrooms.
On Oct. 21, the school eliminated one of three Grade 7 IB classes, creating two larger classes of 28 and 29 students.
In Ontario, there are no cap sizes for classes in grades 4 through 8, only a maximum average of 24.5 across each board. Public health guidelines mandate large classes must be in rooms that can accommodate adequate physical distancing.
Tremblay said an Ottawa Public Health investigator suggested only a few "tweaks" to the current class configuration following the outbreak, including Plexiglas dividers between desks. That change has been delayed because of supply problems, she said.
Girl came home 'very anxious'
Idil Omar said her 12-year-old daughter came home after the first day back at school "very anxious" over a lack of physical distancing. The girl told her mother she could reach out and touch her nearest classmate, and said there was no adult supervision at lunch.
Omar's daughter is among the students who have not yet returned to the school.
"I'm feeling very sad because I'm jeopardizing my daughter's education, but I'd rather keep her safe than the danger of sending her to school," Omar said.
Tremblay said there has always been supervision at lunch.
A source with L'Association des enseignantes et enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), the union representing teachers at the school, confirmed it's heard health and safety complaints regarding COVID-19, but said it can't discuss the details while it's actively trying to resolve the issues.
Several parents said members of their families have since contracted the virus, and school council members estimate some 100 households with links to the school have been under quarantine.
The president of the school council, Yussuf Farah, said in one case both parents have been so ill they've had trouble caring for their children.
"I hope the community keeps these families in mind," Farah said in a French interview.
Fouzar said he's interested in how the Toronto District School Board used its own funds to cap grades 4-8 at 20 students in neighbourhoods with higher COVID-19 transmission, and said he'd like to see the CEPEO take similar steps.
"This is like a huge anxiety," he said. "Every morning I have to talk to myself, am I doing the right thing? Am I protecting my kids?"