Quebec students will be heading back to school this fall

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge has unveiled his plan to reopen schools, which has been rubber-stamped by public health officials due to the decline of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.

'We should do all we can to prepare schools to accept almost all kids in school,' education minister says

Jennifer Grier said she would have liked to hear more details from the government in August, closer to the start of the new school year. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Students across Quebec, including Montreal, will be heading back to school in the fall.

The government's plan to reopen schools was approved by public health officials given the decline in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, said Education Minister Jean-François Roberge Tuesday.

Roberge said he's heard from pediatric specialists who say that while the virus is dangerous, not going to school is dangerous, too — for the success rate and for children's mental health.

"I think we should do all we can to prepare schools to accept almost all kids in school," he said.

Students in preschool up to Grade 9 will be back at their schools. Classes will respect the regular,  pre-pandemic ratios, but there will be subgroups of up to six students who will not have to respect the usual two-metre physical-distancing rule.

The subgroups will have to stay one metre away from one another, and all students will have to stay two metres away from adults. The students will have an assigned classroom, and the teachers will come to them.

For Grade 10 and 11 students, there are two options — they will either follow the same protocol as their younger peers, or they will attend school one day out of two.

They would have online classes and take-home work to do on the days they aren't physically at school.

CEGEP and university students will do a mix of in-school and at-home online learning, although several institutions of higher learning have already said they plan to hold the bulk of the fall semester online.

Classes will be mandatory

It has been optional for parents to send their kids back to school this spring, where classes have reopened, but it will be mandatory next year.

Roberge said parents should be reassured that there weren't many cases of COVID-19 when schools outside Montreal reopened, and most of the time, the students and teachers who came down with the virus didn't catch it at school.

Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge released his back-to-school plan for the fall term on Tuesday morning. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

"If the specialists of health care in Quebec say it's safe, I think we should have confidence in them. They know what they're doing," he said.

Between May 11 and May 31, 78 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed among students and staff across multiple schools in Quebec. As of June 12, there are 22 active cases —10 students and 12 staff.

School boards and school centres will also have to come up with an emergency protocol to deal with a second wave of the pandemic or outbreaks in classrooms, schools or specific regions without interrupting studies, Roberge said.

Those plans would include gathering computer materials that would be lent out and figuring out how to accompany students with learning disabilities.

A good idea, in theory

Jennifer Grier, whose children are eight and 12, said the plan seems like a good one, in theory, but she's not sure how well it will go.

She said she would have wanted to hear more details, closer to the start of the new school year: what happens if a child gets sick, for example? What will be expected of students and their parents? 

"We know through this whole pandemic, information is changing constantly. Parents are going to start having questions. The schools are about to close for the summer, and they're not going to have anyone to ask."

Elementary schools and daycares outside of the greater Montreal area gradually reopened May 11. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Heidi Yetman, the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, which represents teachers at English school boards in Quebec, said the government should have consulted more with teachers about the feasibility of the plan before announcing it.

Just because reopening schools went relatively well in the spring doesn't mean things will stay that way, she said.

"I think it's a bit too soon to go full-blast ahead. We have to be cautious, especially when the cold weather arrives in late October–November. That's when flu season starts, so I'm concerned."

Teachers working now are already exhausted while dealing with fewer students. In the fall, she pointed out, elementary school classes could have up to 27 students, and keeping high schoolers the requisite distance apart from one another will be another challenge.

Michael Cohen, spokesperson for the English Montreal School Board, said there is plenty of time to figure out how the protocols will be implemented.

He said now that special needs schools, emergency daycares and pedagogical camps are open, the board has an idea of how things will work, come fall.

"We've already had kind of a very good run-through, so if, in 2.5 months, everything stays as is and we reopen, I think we'll be ready."

With files from Simon Nakonechny

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