It's been 14 days since the first COVID-19 case at a Windsor-Essex school popped up, and today, 13-year-old Grade 8 student Jamie Smith along with some 20 classmates are allowed to return to school.
Jamie only made it through one day of school at Stella Maris Catholic Elementary School in Amherstburg, Ont. — that was on Friday, Sept. 11. But that weekend, the young student had difficulty breathing and her family became very concerned.
On Sunday, Jamie's parents Andrea and James took her to hospital where they say a doctor attributed her difficulty breathing to anxiety. They did a COVID-19 swab regardless, and by Monday night the Smith family found out she was positive.
"We started phoning and calling everybody that we knew that we were in contact with even that late at night," said James. "My wife called the school, left a message, and I also called a teacher I am friends with too, just so we can speed up the process for the school the next morning."
Parents James and Andrea say they were beside themselves. Despite of all the COVID-19 precautions they were taking, they assumed they spread the virus to their daughter because they are both essential workers. They also got tested along with younger sister, nine-year-old Jenna.
But all three of them had negative test results, and they say they still don't know how Jamie contracted the virus, which is causing uncertainty and anxiety for the family who thought they were doing everything right.
On Tuesday Sept. 15, the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board confirmed there had been a case at the school, dismissing students in the classroom and asking them to self-isolate for 14 days. But not their teacher.
The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit follows up with all teachers as part of their case and contact management, said medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed, and conducts interviews to assess the risk factors for them.
"Teachers are wearing a medical-grade mask and some of them are also wearing a face shield and they are maintaining their physical distancing with the students and even in the classroom they are designated spots," said Ahmed. "There is very limited reason for us to think that with all these measures in place, that the teacher is at risk of contracting it."
So, though Jamie's teacher was not required to isolate, her classmates and family were.
No negative test needed before back-to-school
The Smith family has been under quarantine together now and their 14-day period was up on Sunday, James explained last Friday. Jamie can go back to school Monday as long as she has no symptoms for 72 hours, the family say they were told.
But given the uncertainty around how Jamie contracted the virus, her family has concerns.
"As of Monday, we're not required to go get retested, including Jamie ... and it's not recommended for Jamie especially to be retested" said James.
"They've said to us that the reason why they don't want Jamie retested because she can show up positive up until like three months from now still, but they feel that the virus is still dead, so she can't spread it. So that's a little concerning."
According to public health guidelines in Ontario, a student is not required to do a negative test before returning to school. Instead, the clearance is based on the 14-day timeline and the absence of symptoms.
"Most people clear the virus between eight to 10 days, so 14 days is even a little bit extending to ensure that we are capturing everything," said Ahmed.
Ahmed said in that eight to 10 day period, about 99 per cent of people are not infectious. Ontario uses 14 days a precaution, but other provinces use only ten days.
Ahmed said these guidelines could always change if the province chooses to do so.
The parents said they were told the rest of the family should also not get re-tested either, but are doing so anyway for "peace of mind."
However Ahmed said specific cases have specific recommendations, and any close contact of a COVID-19 case would likely be encouraged to be tested themselves.
This week, Ontario also changed testing requirements shifting back toward testing only symptomatic people and those in high-risk groups to relieve pressure on publicly funded testing sites and clear a severe backlog of samples.
"So the new guidance is saying that low risk, asymptomatic people should not get tested," said chief nursing officer and health unit CEO Theresa Marentette.
"But if they are a contact of a confirmed case, that puts them at a higher risk, so in that case if they are asymptomatic, testing can occur."
Discrimination, bullying, and stigma surrounds COVID-19 cases
Although Jamie had been feeling better in her last week of quarantine, her parents are struggling with another aspect of the disease — the stigma their daughters may be facing.
"A huge worry is how our kids will be treated when they go back to school," said James.
Despite all the support they have been given from friends and family who have helped them during this quarantine period, the Smiths say they have experienced some negative backlash from people in the community, and it has them worried.
"I think that if people should know that when somebody does test positive, that rumours and false accusations and that is not appropriate at the time," said Andrea. "It's the time where people need positive influence."
Last week, the health unit also brought attention to the stigma and discrimination that's happening in Windsor-Essex.
It's something the school board is preparing for, too.
"Creating those safe, caring and accepting environments in our school is a priority," said superintendent Melissa Farrand.
"Upon the return of this particular cohort, we have arranged for a child and youth worker, a psychologist, as well as our mental health consultant to be on site to to address any concerns that the staff or students may have."
Farrand said the staff will be reinforcing messages of acceptance, and encourages anyone experiencing bullying to talk to a teacher or their school principal.
As for the girls' classes, Jamie was able to participate in online learning with the rest of her class from home. But sister Jenna was not given school work until the Smith's called the school and asked what their back-to-class transition looked like.
Farrand said that individual students instructed to stay away from school would not automatically enroll in pre-existing virtual classes. Instead, their teacher would provide work for them, like what Jenna was given eventually.
"So the classroom teacher would provide work perhaps through a Google classroom, or they may pick it up at the school, and as well, there's telephone calls and emails that can be exchanged," she said.