Toronto elementary school self-reports 113 COVID-19 cases in 2 weeks; officials say it will stay open
Published Thursday, April 7, 2022 11:35AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, April 7, 2022 3:27PM EDT
A Toronto elementary school has seen at least 113 cases of COVID-19 among staff and students in the past two weeks, but officials say it will stay open under rules enacted by the province earlier this year.
St. Brendan Catholic School in Scarborough’s Port Union area went the first two weeks of March without any reported COVID-19 cases.
In fact, none had been reported at the school since Feb. 1.
Toronto Catholic schools are one of only a few boards in the province that still disclose COVID-19 cases after provincial rules changed in January.
The first two cases in weeks at St. Brendan were reported on March 23 – two days after the mandatory masking requirement in schools in Ontario was lifted.
Two days later, another case was reported.
Then two more, then another two the following day.
Five days after the first case, four more staff or students tested positive.
Sixteen days later, 115 cases of COVID-19 have been reported at the school, including 39 in the past three days.
“We continue to follow advice and direction from (Toronto Public Health) and at this time, classes are not being dismissed,” TCDSB spokesperson Shazia Vlahos told CP24. “A courtesy letter is sent to the classroom where there is a positive case and individuals are asked to monitor for symptoms.”
Provincial rules that came into effect in March dictate that children who are exposed to COVID-19 do not need to stay home, but should self-monitor for symptoms.
The cases disclosed by the board at St. Brendan, which has about 540 students, may not reflect all of the transmission at that school, because case disclosure is voluntary, and also dependent on having a rapid test available.
“Cases are reported to TCDSB at the discretion of staff and families. Hence, case counts on the dashboard may not be reflective of the total number of individuals with COVID-19,” the board says on its website.
University of Toronto epidemiologist Dr. Colin Furness told CP24 that while you cannot directly tie the end of mandatory masking to a situation like what is unfolding at St. Brendan, it definitely increased risk.
“There’s no question that it increases risk – it doesn’t guarantee that we’ll have an outbreak 48 hours later.
“Diseases move through populations at the timing that diseases choose,” Furness said. “There was probably a lot of infective pressure in that community at the time that masks came off.”
Across the TCDSB schools that submitted data on Thursday, 10.2 per cent of students were absent on Wednesday.
On the last day St. Brendan reported attendance to the province, Monday, 12.1 per cent of students were absent.
In the Toronto District School Board on Wednesday, 14 per cent of students were absent in schools that submitted data.
Furness said the lack of testing data related to schools, as most boards no longer publicly disclose cases, makes it hard for anyone to accurately assess the risk of attending school.
“We don’t know whether we’re dealing with an outlier here or whether every school is dealing with a situation like this.”
He said that in his opinion, Ontario never conducted enough testing in school populations to determine whether schools were a high-risk setting or not, or which factors make some schools higher risk than others.
Rapid testing did not become widespread in schools until Dec. 2021, and PCR test access ended gradually in most schools about two months later.
“We’re creating a really dangerous situation when we’re going not going to test in schools, we’re not going to measure in schools and we’re not going to encourage vaccination (among young children).”
For its part, Toronto Public Health said it has not taken any actions specific to the situation at St. Brendan, especially because absenteeism at that school has not hit the 30 per cent threshold set out by the province to warrant additional measures, such as a blanket notification of the whole school community.
“While the Ministry of Education is no longer requiring masks for students and staff in schools, school board offices and on student transportation, Toronto Public Health continues to encourage mask use,” a spokesperson told CP24.
“TPH will continue to closely monitor local epidemiological trends and provide additional information or guidance as required.”