Waterloo Public Health says it is ordering a school to close in Kitchener due to a COVID-19 outbreak, shifting nearly 350 students to online learning.
Beginning Wednesday, Blessed Sacrament Catholic Elementary School on The Country Way near Bleams Road will be closed to in-person learning for at least 10 days.
“We are taking important and necessary steps to protect children, staff and the school community from exposure to the COVID-19 virus,” associate medical officer of health Dr. Julie Emili said in a statement.
“We are closing a school for the first time since the return to in-class learning this fall due to concern about the potential for widespread and rapid transmission of the virus.”
There are 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the school that have resulted in multiple cohort dismissals, public health said.
Dr. Emili later confirmed during a news conference that all of the cases are students and there have been no reports of any child being seriously ill.
She also added that there has been some spread among vaccinated students.
“This is not unusual. Vaccination definitely decreases your risk of getting COVID, but it doesn’t eliminate it entirely,” Dr. Emili said.
“So in situations where there may be more than one person who has COVID or where there’s close prolonged contact, such as what we would see the school setting, it is not unusual to have that, although the vast majority are unvaccinated, given the fact that most of the students would not yet be eligible for vaccination”
At least 140 people have also been classified as high-risk contacts.
Director of education for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board Loretta Notten said they requested the school closure from public health.
“We think it’s a move out of an abundance of caution and will just provide our community the confidence that when their children do return to school, it will be in a very healthy and safe environment,” Notten said.
“We know we have the ability to provide online learning in the meantime, so the learning doesn’t have to be disrupted, and it just ensures that we don’t have more families than might be necessary to be impacted by COVID.”
Notten said the board is using Wednesday as a “pivot day” to ensure students can access their online classrooms from home and everyone should be ready to go by Thursday morning.
Public health is also recommending rapid antigen testing as part of its plan to return to school and said it will work with school officials to distribute testing kits to families.
“The rapid antigen testing will be offered to students as they return. All of the students who it will be offered to will be not actively symptomatic. They will not be vaccinated and they will also have completed all of their isolation periods,” Dr. Emili said, adding rapid testing will be considered an extra safety measure for students returning to in-person learning.
“It will be optional and we’ll work with our school board colleagues in the school itself on assisting with distribution of those test kits.”
The school closure comes just two days before the region begins to vaccinate five- to 11-year-olds with Pfizer’s children’s vaccine.
The region’s vaccination task force is hoping to have a needle in all of the age group’s arms by Christmas.
—with files from Global News’ Kevin Nielsen