Why extending winter break to curb COVID-19 is doable for some Quebec parents, but not all

Quebec Premier François Legault says schools might have to close this winter, extending the holiday break in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 which is showing the highest rate of transmission in schools and workplaces.

For a single mom of 4 in Montreal, school is her only break from the kids

Staying home longer during winter break may sound like a dream come true to some kids, but Mary Kennedy, a single mom of four, said it won't be easy for her. (Alison Northcott/CBC)

Mary Kennedy doesn't know what she will do if Quebec extends the winter break from school to curb COVID-19 transmission. 

It will mean the single mother will have her four kids at home around the clock.

"If it's just for a few weeks, I don't mind," she said. "If it's longer, that's when it starts to get harder."

Premier François Legault said students may be temporarily sent home, as the virus is spreading fastest in schools and workplaces. 

He said his administration has yet to make a decision on the matter, but is already discussing the possibility with teachers' unions because such a closure could extend the school year into the summer.

"We have to consider all our options to break the wave," said Legault during his Thursday news briefing.

But parents like Kennedy need the daily breather that school provides. She has been trying to find a job, having been a stay-at-home mom since separating from her spouse two years ago.

"When the kids are in school, it gives me a few hours during the day to do what I need to do in order for me to live a better life."

"And my children," she said, "they need an education."

Quebec Premier François Legault, centre, said closing schools this winter is a last-resort solution, but it may be necessary as COVID-19 continues to surge in the province. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Kennedy's daughters, Jersie, 9, and Layla, 10, remember when schools closed last spring all too well. Layla said schools should close again if "COVID is getting worse because it's not safe."

But Jersie thinks it is a bad idea because it will be hard for their mother to "make us get along more." 

Staying home with kids is possible for some

The Kennedy family aren't the only ones looking at a longer break with mixed emotions.

Amber Valente said extending the break would give her three school-aged daughters a chance to enjoy Christmas.

"They miss their cousins. They miss their grandma and grandpa. They miss their families," said the mother of four from Montreal.

"We need Christmas to kind of keep everyone going."

On the other hand, Valente said, many parents can't afford to take time off work. While her husband is working, she's been home with the baby. But not everyone can be absent from work for a month, she said.

And she pointed out that businesses need their employees to stay on the job.

"Businesses are failing quite a bit," she said. "So many have already closed."

WATCH | Montreal moms discuss what school closure would mean for them:

Quebec parents look to possible extended winter break with mixed feelings

3 years ago
Duration 0:39
While Amber Valente can see the family benefits of extending school break over the holidays to curb the spread of COVID-19, Mary Kennedy says it will be hard for her as a single mom of four children.

'We need to hit the reset button,' specialist says

Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist at the Montreal Jewish General Hospital, said he understands Legault's thinking as extending winter break will cut back on contacts during a time when many viruses, not just COVID-19, abound.

"We need to hit the reset button," said Oughton. 

"We have to get these numbers under control now rather than waiting much longer and I think this would be one way to accomplish that goal."

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Matthew Oughton said closing schools this winter for at least two weeks will help, but other measures are needed. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

He said closing for two weeks is the minimum needed as anything less won't likely interrupt the spread due to the virus's incubation period. 

But other measures, such masks in for all children while in class, would be a "big step forward for this province," Oughton said. 

QESBA calls for flexibility

The Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) has been telling Quebec's education minister that the 2020-21 school year is not business as usual, according to executive director Russell Copeman.

"You need to have some flexibility," said Copeman.

QESBA is questioning whether all the material needs to be covered, ministerial exams completed and all 180 days of school required, he said.

The idea is to get students through the school year with all the basic learning necessary, but without following "to the letter" the format that dates back to the days before COVID-19, Copeman said.

"I think the ministry has to rely on the expertise of students, teachers and pedagogical consultants and directors of education to work with the network to determine what is appropriate in a very, very exceptional year."

As far as extending winter break, Copeman said talks with unions will be tricky given so many collective agreements are currently under negotiation.

"I think the need for a break is real," said Copeman, and not just to curb the spread of the virus. "It's just some extra time for students, for teachers, for staff to recharge their batteries."

But, he added, extending the year into the summer may not be ideal and that's where the government could be more flexible — scaling back requirements to complete the school year in time for summer break.

With files by Alison Northcott, Verity Stevenson and Matt D'Amours

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