Montreal

COVID-19 in Quebec: 'Life must go on,' says premier, outlining plan to reopen schools gradually

Premier François Legault said for the good of children, especially those with learning difficulties, the Quebec government is moving forward with a plan to begin opening schools in the coming weeks, beginning May 11 with elementary schools outside greater Montreal.

In greater Montreal region, elementary schools will reopen May 19; high schools, CEGEPs off until late August

Quebec is the first province to announce specific dates for schools to reopen: elementary schools will reopen May 11 outside greater Montreal and on May 19 in Montreal, Laval and surrounding suburbs. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The latest:

  • Quebec has 24,982 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,599 people have died. Of the 84 new deaths, 79 were in CHSLDs.
  • There are 1,541 people in hospital, including 210 in intensive care.
  • Here's a guide to the numbers.
  • Quebec is expected to announce its plan to gradually reopen schools and daycares today.
  • Public Health Director Horacio Arruda says he now recommends people wear a mask in public if they anticipate being in a situation where they cannot stay two metres away from other people.

Confident that Quebec's hospitals are in control of the COVID-19 outbreak, Premier François Legault outlined a plan Monday to gradually reopen elementary schools and daycares over the next month.

Legault said he will announce a plan Tuesday to allow some businesses to reopen. The moves are the Quebec government's first tentative steps toward lifting the confinement measures put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, beginning in mid-March.

"Life must go on," Legault said at the government's daily news conference. 

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge and Families Minister Mathieu Lacombe provided details about the plan to reopen schools and daycares, including what measures will be taken to keep students and teachers safe.

Here are the main points: 

  • Elementary schools and daycares outside of the greater Montreal region will reopen on May 11. 
  • Elementary schools and daycares of greater Montreal, including Laval and surrounding suburbs, will reopen on May 19.
  • All other schools — high schools, colleges and universities — won't reopen until late August.
  • Attendance will not be mandatory. Classrooms will be capped at 15 students, and daycares will have to reduce their numbers by half. 

Legault said the province will only stick to this timeline if hospitalizations from COVID-19 remain the same or continue to decrease. There are now 1,541 people in hospital — an increase of 23 over Sunday. Some 210 patients are in intensive care, down five from yesterday.

"The most important condition that needed to be met before thinking about reopening schools and businesses is being certain we're in control in our hospitals," Legault said. 

"We have to be able to care for our people before we can have regular activities."

Legault outlined several other reasons why the government felt it was time to gradually reopen schools, even though no vaccine for the novel coronavirus exists. 

With a plan to reopen some schools, school buses will be back on roads starting on May 11, but to respect physical-distancing guidelines, only one child will ride on each bench seat. (Jean-Claude Taliana/Radio-Canada)

It will benefit children, especially those with learning difficulties for whom five or six months without attending school could pose serious, long-term consequences, he said.

He also noted that young children face the least risk of developing severe complications from COVID-19.

Quebec is the first province to attach specific dates to its plan to reopen part of its school system. Other provinces have set specific targets for the number new COVID-19 cases before they will allow children back in class, or they have opted to prioritize other activities — such as a return to elective surgeries in hospitals — as they consider how they will lift confinement measures.

Quebec's major employers' group, the Conseil du patronat du Québec, welcomed the provincial government's decision, saying it hoped plans to reopen businesses would follow a similar timeline.

Parents' associations and teachers' unions, however, expressed concerns the government is rushing ahead without consulting widely enough before making a decision.

They worry the safety measures proposed, including reduced class sizes, won't be sufficient to prevent  further outbreaks.   

Goal is not herd immunity, Legault says

At Monday's news conference, Legault stressed the goal of sending children back to school was not to develop herd immunity, an epidemiological concept that suggests a population can become resistant to a virus once sufficient numbers have antibodies from exposure to it. 

Though Quebec has invoked the concept in the past, the World Health Organization and Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, warned recently there are too many uncertainties about COVID-19 to make herd immunity a public health objective. 

Legault acknowledged those warnings Monday, saying: "I want to be clear — we are reopening our schools for social reasons and because the situation is under control, particularly in our hospital system."

The Quebec government has unveiled plans to get some students back in the classroom by the end of May. 2:01

The province's public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, said Quebecers shouldn't interpret this decision as a sign it is safe to resume a pre-pandemic lifestyle. Bans on public gatherings will remain in effect.

Arruda warned that schools and businesses could be closed once again if the hospitalization numbers spike or if people stop following physical-distancing directives. 

"If the population doesn't maintain distancing, we're going to lose everything, and we'll be forced to confine again in an intensive way," he said.

New projections suggest narrow window to ease restrictions

A pair of studies by Quebec researchers, released over the weekend, suggest the province may have narrow leeway when it comes to lifting confinement measures. 

The studies were published by the province's public health research institute, the Institut national de santé publique du Québec, which provides scientific advice to the government. 

In one projection, researchers estimate that if the confinement measures imposed so far have reduced social interactions by 65 per cent, then social interactions could be increased by between 10 and 20 per cent with relatively little impact on hospitalizations and deaths.

If, however, social interactions have been reduced by less than 65 per cent, then a 10 or 20 per cent increase in social interactions would cause a drastic rise in the number of cases and deaths.

Public Health Director Horacio Arruda said Quebecers shouldn't interpret the decision to open some schools as a sign it is safe to resume their pre-pandemic lifestyle. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

The projections don't specify to what extent Quebecers have reduced their social interactions since the province went into lockdown mode the week of March 23. That will be the subject of a subsequent study. 

"The COVID-19 epidemiological situation is fragile in Quebec," says a slide presentation that accompanies the studies.

"Giving up on social-distancing measures (for example, gatherings or interactions of less than two metres) could change the epidemiological curves from an optimistic situation to a pessimistic situation." 

"The coming days will be critical for confirming the trajectory of the epidemic," the presentation continues.

Montreal police said Monday, for the most part, city residents have been following the public health directives, even though officers have issued 1,841 tickets since the directives were put in place.

"Obviously, when it's nice out, there are more people, and it can be harder to keep your distance, but despite everything, it's still been pretty acceptable," SPVM spokesperson André Durocher told Radio-Canada.

Durocher reminded people that they are not allowed to invite friends or family members into their homes or backyards, even if they plan on maintaining a two-metre distance from each other.

Instead, he suggested socializing with neighbours from their respective balconies.

Long-term care homes still struggling

Both the premier and Arruda, the provincial public health director, continue to draw a distinction between the situation in the population at large and in long-term care residences, or CHSLDs, where the outbreak has proven most deadly. 

But after spending several weeks pleading for Quebecers of all stripes to help care for seniors in CHSLDs, Legault is now expressing confidence the critical staffing shortage will be resolved soon. 

He said 11,000 Quebecers came forward over the weekend to indicate their willingness to work in CHSLDs, where thousands of health-care workers are off sick, mostly due to exposure to the virus. 

A playground of an elementary school in Deux-Montagnes, Que. The provincial government announced today that elementary schools will reopen gradually by the end of the month. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

"It's like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders," he said. 

But the situation remains critical in many of the province's long-term care and other kinds of seniors' homes, where most of the deaths have occurred. 

Eighty-four more deaths have been recorded in the past 24 hours. Of those, 79 were residents of CHSLDs.

With so many thousands of health-care staff infected, some replacement workers say they're being dropped into the long-term care homes without adequate training.

"There's despair in everybody's faces," says one volunteer.

Others with experience in CHSLDs say they are not getting the support they need — leading some to quit.

CBC Montreal revealed that four workers at a long-term care home in Laval, CHSLD Fernand-Larocque, resigned on Friday.

One of the people who quit, registered nurse Valérie Gilbert, described "war-like" conditions at the CHSLD.

"I'm raising the white flag, I admit defeat," she wrote on Facebook. "I am leaving this boat which is sinking faster than the Titanic."

With files from Franca Mignacca and Colin Harris

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