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New rules send more than 1,800 into self-isolation at Orléans school


Ottawa Public Health identified everyone at St. Peter Catholic High School as being a high-risk contact. The school was closed Friday, which was the last day before the holiday break.

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It was a cruel last day of school for more than 1,800 students and staff at St. Peter Catholic High School in Orléans on Friday after they were all sent home to isolate.

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A COVID-19 outbreak at St. Peter resulted in Ottawa Public Health identifying everyone at the school as being a high-risk contact. The school was closed Friday, which was the last day before the holiday break.

Also Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford warned parents that the situation with the rapidly spreading Omicron variant was evolving quickly and it was too early to know what would happen at schools in January.

Ford acknowledged that parents were anxious about the possibility that schools would remain closed after the holiday break. That was what happened last year, when the province was hit by the second wave of the pandemic. Students were temporarily shifted to online learning in January.

Ottawa Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said Friday that it was a priority to keep schools open and that remained the current plan for January.

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“We are planning to be able to keep schools open across the board and act as early as we can where we need to.”

Etches said rapid antigen tests were a new and useful tool that would help.

For instance, students in elementary schools in the high-COVID neighbourhoods of Barrhaven and Riverside South, where multiple schools had outbreaks, were offered rapid tests this month.

In addition, the province provided all elementary and secondary students five-packs of rapid tests to use at home during the holiday break in a bid to identify infections and to keep them out of school when students return.

“We’re hoping that, with a greater supply of rapid antigen tests coming in the new year, we hear, that we’ll have these tools to help,” Etches said.

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By early in the new year, children ages five to 11 will also be fully vaccinated, Etches said.

In the meantime, she urged parents to take their children out of extracurricular activities and indoor sports to limit the spread of the virus and to make it more likely that schools could reopen in January.

“At this point, we are assessing day by day. The COVID rates are growing so quickly,” Etches said.

It’s been a rough few weeks at Ottawa schools, with an explosion of outbreaks at elementary schools.

There were 36 ongoing outbreaks in Ottawa schools as of Friday. Three schools were closed, including St. Peter.

St. Peter was caught up in tougher new rules on school isolation put into effect Thursday by Ottawa Public Health.

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All people at schools identified as high-risk contacts of someone with COVID-19 must isolate for 10 days, Etches explained at a media conference held Friday to outline measures being taken to counter the threat posed by the Omicron variant.

Previously, students and staff who were high-risk contacts could avoid isolation if they were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, unless they had symptoms themselves. Since most people in high schools are vaccinated, there have been far fewer outbreaks this year at secondary schools compared to elementary schools.

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Ottawa Public Health identified four students and three staff members at St. Peter who had tested positive, said Sharlene Hunter, spokesperson for the Ottawa Catholic School Board. The OPH data, based on information Thursday afternoon, identified two students who were part of the outbreak.

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An outbreak was declared at St. Peter after cases of COVID-19 were identified in more than one class or area of the school, according to a letter that OPH sent to parents.

Since new cases and cohorts continued to be identified, all staff and students at St. Peter were deemed to be high-risk contacts and must isolate, the letter said.

There are about 1,730 students at the school, Hunter said. The board was unable to immediately provide a total number of staff at the school, but, based on the number of students, there are probably at least 100 teachers.

The total number of active cases of COVID-19 at Ottawa’s four school boards has more than doubled in the past two weeks, according to data posted by the boards.

On Dec. 6, there were 123 active cases of COVID-19 at the city’s publicly funded schools, compared to 282 cases on Friday.

jmiller@postmedia.com

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