School board, teachers scramble to deal with Windsor's first COVID-19 school closure

·5 min read

More than 400 students and staff from a Windsor-Essex elementary school are in isolation following the region's first COVID-19 school outbreak.

This is the region's first school outbreak and the first time an entire Windsor-Essex school has been sent home.

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) has said that anyone attending F.W. Begley Public School is at high risk of contracting COVID-19 and should be self-isolating as of Wednesday after three staff members tested positive for the virus. According to the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB), 430 staff and students were attending classes in-person and are now at home.

For Grade 8 student Rayane Moufleh the news of the outbreak came as a surprise. Moufleh said she feels both happy and sad about the school closure, adding that her parents think staying home is the safest thing to do.

Katerina Georgieva/CBC
Katerina Georgieva/CBC

"They were like actually kind of happy because they didn't want to send us to school at first, at the beginning of it, because they were scared of COVID and stuff like that. So my parents were like happy and they said they should have not opened it at all," said Moufleh in an interview with CBC News.

Moufleh and her brother, Moussa Moufleh, said they are looking forward to trying e-learning at home with iPads for the next two weeks. She said her parents made the decision to put herself and her brother back in school in the fall as they "weren't doing well" with online learning.

Contact tracing underway

GECDSB superintendent of education Sharon Pyke told CBC News the board is figuring out the logistics but hopes to resume learning by the end of the week.

Katerina Georgieva/CBC
Katerina Georgieva/CBC

"Our students are moving from brick and mortar schooling, and (are) going to be moving to virtual, we're just setting that up. We do have a process, we're making sure that we have enough devices available for our families and we're starting directly with having teachers teach virtually to their students for the time that the outbreak period will be," she said.

Pyke added WECHU is currently carrying out a contact tracing investigation which will help to pinpoint the root of the outbreak at the school, and plans for a deep cleaning of the school are being discussed.

"We do have very significant safety protocols put in place at school for both staff and students. We're pretty confident in those at this time, though, we've got lots of COVID in our community and now it's slowly coming into the schools," she said.

Pyke, along with four public health nurses and some school staff members, attended F.W Begley Thursday morning to field questions from parents at the school. She said written communication about the outbreak was handed out to families in both Arabic and English.

"The families that came to school this morning were very gracious, thankful that we were keeping their children safe by closing the school. And there were no issues," said Pyke.

No current plan in place for online lessons

Local president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario Mario Spagnuolo told CBC News Wednesday morning that to his understanding there is no plan in place for how teachers will continue with lessons.

"We are still trying to figure out what the plans are for the next two weeks," Spagnuolo said. "There has been no communication to the union about what that is going to look like. These have been questions we have asked proactively since the beginning of the school year — what the outbreak plan is, what does it look like? And we have no information and our members are obviously concerned about their own health and well-being."

He said he's uncertain about what the school board is going to do and that the school closure was not properly communicated to teachers, who found out about it through social media.

Tahmina Aziz/CBC
Tahmina Aziz/CBC

Spagnuolo said he has many questions to ask the board, including where teachers will work, what devices they will use, what schedule they will follow and what teachers' responsibilities will be in ensuring their students are set up for online learning.

"There's just many questions of logistics that we still don't know and obviously this is the first day so right now I think many people are looking at their own health ... but moving forward we need to have some type of plan for the school community and from what I can see and hear there's nothing at this point," he said.

Board figuring out details

In an email to CBC News Wednesday morning, public relations officer for the public board Scott Scantlebury said they are learning as they go.

"There's always things we can learn from any situation, especially when it's the first time dealing with a particular one. It is too early to say, I believe, how things might change … our response to the outbreak has gone well so far – lots of help from the health unit and [Windsor Regional Hospital]," he said.

"We will share the plan with staff, students and families shortly. There is a generic plan, we just have to make it specific to this school community."

Health unit investigating source of outbreak

In its COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, WECHU said it is still investigating the outbreak.

"Staff are obviously going to different places in the school and ... the inability to pinpoint how exactly the transmission could have happened ... we took that unprecedented step of dismissing the school cohort and calling it an outbreak," said the region's medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed.

Ahmed said they aren't sure who was the first case, but can confirm that transmission took place inside the school.

The health unit would not provide any further details on the role of the staff members or with which grades they interacted.

Since all members of the school community are considered high-risk, Ahmed said they should self-isolate and get tested if symptomatic, adding that the Windsor Regional Hospital's Metropolitan campus will provide "dedicated testing" for staff and students from the school.

Ahmed said the school community is diverse so the health unit is making sure their communications cater to the different demographics.

The school is one of three in the province currently closed due to an outbreak.