Parents face the anxiety and ripple effects of pandemic schooling as COVID-19 cases inch up

Some parents in Ottawa are anxious and frustrated as the number of people at schools testing positive for  COVID-19 inches up, huge lineups persist at testing centres and some must stay home with children who have been ordered to self-isolate.

The number of COVID-19 cases at Ottawa schools is relatively tiny — as of Thursday 21 people had tested positive at 15 schools. However, the ripple effect of public health rules for pandemic schooling is hitting many families.

Ottawa’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, warned on Thursday that children who have any potential symptoms — including a runny nose — should be tested to help to keep everyone safe. A child might simply have a cold, but COVID-19 must be ruled out, she said on CBC radio. The symptoms can be similar.

“That helps us make sure that people have the right treatment,” Etches said. “It helps us make sure that we are able to trace back and control transmission that might get into a long-term care home, for example, and it helps us inform the rest of the population about the risk level.”

At the same time, as families faced another day of hours-long waiting lines at testing centres, Etches emphasized that “the whole household doesn’t need testing when one person has symptoms of illness. The rest of the household doesn’t have to line up.”

The rules around testing and self-isolation are complicated for parents trying to navigate them.

Brynna Leslie has faced two of the most common situations confronting parents. The day after her eight-year-old daughter started school at Montfort elementary on Sept. 3, she and one brother woke up feeling congested. Leslie thought it was probably just allergies but kept her daughter home from school and both kids got tested. They were negative.

Then, on Sept. 13, a public health official phoned to say Leslie’s daughter had been in close contact with someone at school who had COVID-19. Leslie was told her daughter would have to self-isolate at home until Sept. 23 — 14 days after she was exposed.

That means only venturing as far as the backyard. The entire Grade 3 class was sent home, said Leslie, and given assignments to do online.

“I feel so frustrated,” she said. Leslie had already cut her consulting work down to part-time hours to help her kids do emergency learning at home after the pandemic closed schools last March.

She knew there was a risk sending her daughter back to in-person classes, but saw a “glimmer of hope” because the school is the “gold standard” for COVID-19 protection, she said.

Her daughter’s class only has 17 students, with room for distancing, and all of them wear masks, even though it’s not mandatory until Grade 4. The building is relatively new, with good ventilation, and school administrators were following safety protocols, she said.