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The Grade 7 student who attended Churchill High School earlier this week before receiving a positive COVID-19 test did "everything that they were supposed to do," the province’s top doctor said Thursday.
During a news conference Thursday, Dr. Brent Roussin confirmed the student — who is now self-isolating — left school midday Tuesday after being contacted about her test result.
The female student in Room 20 was asymptomatic aboard a Winnipeg Transit bus and during a "limited time" inside the building on Tuesday, the first day of school. Manitoba Public Health first issued an alert about the case Wednesday afternoon, after contacting the student and school administration.
It remains unclear when and why the asymptomatic student was tested and how she contracted COVID-19. Asymptomatic individuals waiting for test results are not required to self-isolate.
Citing personal health matters and privacy, Roussin disclosed few details Thursday. He did confirm the student was not a close contact of another case and was not advised by Public Health to get tested or self-isolate.
"The more we scrutinize this situation or try to identify an individual, the less likely it is the next individual who might have mild symptoms will go for testing, so we need to remember that we’re all in this together," Roussin said.
He pleaded with members of the public to not stigmatize the student and urged anyone experiencing even mild symptoms to get tested.
"No one blames you for having COVID-19," Roussin said.
The case connected to Churchill — which officials say was not acquired at school — has been deemed low risk because the student wore a mask both during the commute and in the school building. Following fogging and cleaning overnight, classes resumed Thursday.
After the school day, one of the upwards of 700 students at the Riverview-area school said attendance in Room 20 dropped Thursday, with only six of the 15 pupils in class. "I think the parents of all the other kids must have panicked," he said.
Officials have asked anyone who attended the site this week to self-monitor for symptoms.
"The process has been quite consistent in what we thought would happen.… We feel our plan has been pretty solid and the measures that we have in place really helped to contain the situation," said principal Ryan Hughes, who credited the Grade 7 student with following the school’s public health protocols.
Hughes told the Free Press the student passed a screening test before entering the school Tuesday. He said public health notified the school about the positive case Wednesday afternoon and administrators then contacted families of both Churchill and Collège Churchill, the adjacent French-immersion school located in the same building at 510 Hay St.
Uneasy students clad in face coverings arrived at Churchill early Thursday to resume class, only hours after learning one of their peers had tested positive.
Among them, Grade 8 student Riley McKeever, who arrived sporting a fabric mask with a Canada flag printed on it. The 12 year old said she plans to keep her mask on "outside, inside and everywhere possible" at school for the foreseeable future, given the latest virus update.
"I expected it was going to happen at some point, just not that early," said Jakeb Taylor, a Grade 8 student at Churchill.
While noting grades 7 and 8 students share a hallway, Taylor said he plans to calm his nerves by keeping his distance from students outside of his tight-knit social circle.
"We feel at Churchill that we are safe to continue today; the staff is feeling confident to continue to help the students with their education and to continue to get things back on track within the school," Hughes said.
During drop-off Thursday, mother Kyla Stewart said she felt confident sending her Grade 9 daughter to Collège after the update.
"They’re wearing masks, they’re being socially distanced, they’re washing their hands — so I feel very confident in sending her and I’m just super thankful that the teachers and administration are doing what they can," said Stewart, noting her daughter is in a different wing of the building.
Stewart welcomed the detailed release from public health and school officials Wednesday.
"Knowledge is power," she said. At the same time, Stewart said she felt sad for the student and their family since peers will likely be able to determine their identity.
Roussin said the province plans to continue providing detailed updates about COVID-19 cases connected to schools. If any community transmission is found within a school, Roussin said the province will deem it an outbreak.
Churchill has not been added to the province's pandemic response system.
Premier Brian Pallister had some advice for Manitobans concerned about the first school COVID-19 case.
"Be steadfast and determined and know that tremendous preparatory work has been done to continue to protect our students and to assist those when those cases come forward," Pallister said at an event Thursday at Oak Hammock Marsh.
"With the cohort structure that’s been developed, we'll be able to continue to educate the balance of non-affected students and protect the staff in the schools as well," said the premier, a former teacher.
Pallister was asked how he’d feel if he were a classroom teacher right now.
"The students are looking for leadership and they’re looking for determination, so recognize the disease is contagious and attitudes are, too," Pallister said. "So, remember to stand by the structures that have been developed by educational leaders."
The province announced 13 new cases Thursday, bringing Manitoba's total tally to 1,378. The current five-day test positivity rate is 1.2 per cent.
At present, the province has no plans to fast-track student or school staff COVID-19 tests or change its policy on asymptomatic testing. Roussin added Thursday the province is still not encouraging asymptomatic individuals to get tested, since the majority of cases in Manitoba involve symptomatic individuals.
— with files from Carol Sanders
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
Updated on Thursday, September 10, 2020 at 5:02 PM CDT: Updates with info from Roussin, photos, formatting
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