Montreal

Parents launch legal challenge against back-to-school policy as province limits exemptions

The Quebec government only wants physicians to issue notes exempting students from school if the child is very sick, according to guidelines it has sent to doctors. 

New provincial guidelines highlight value of in-school learning for those who aren't at highest risk

Quebec doctors now have a set of guidelines to follow when deciding whether to issue notes exempting students from returning to class this September. (Adam Robison/The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal/AP)

A group of Quebec parents filed a legal challenge against the provincial government Friday, arguing they should be allowed to decide whether to keep their children home or not, without losing their spot in school.

The parents, represented by constitutional lawyer Julius Grey, are demanding an online schooling option for families — an option that is currently available only for children with medical exemptions and only if they have a doctor's note.  

Grey and the plaintiffs claim the regulations are unconstitutional, infringing on, among other things, the charter "right to life, liberty and security of the person." 

The legal challenge came as Quebec's Health Ministry issued strict new guidelines for doctors issuing medical exemption notes. 

According to the court documents filed, all six of the plaintiffs are mothers who have children in elementary or high school.

Of the six, three are concerned because their child or a close family member suffers from an illness that puts them at risk of serious complications from COVID-19.

All three of them were unable to obtain a medical note before the start of school, court documents state. 

Dr. Julie St-Pierre, a Montreal pediatrician, said while parents are weighing the risk of putting their children back in class, they should also consider the negative consequences of keeping them home. 

"A lot of kids were very disorganized, depressed and, of course, lacking physical activity," she said.

Health Ministry guidelines for medical exemptions

The 21-page document published by the ministry outlines what kinds of underlying health conditions must be taken into account by doctors, and the different levels of severity that can put children and teens at risk. 

It says the majority of students with chronic illnesses should be back in class in September, including some children being treated for cancers and some who have had recent organ transplants.

Children with mild asthma are encouraged to go back to school, too.

The document stresses the benefits of in-class learning and says the recommendations were developed by more than a dozen doctors, including some pediatricians.

"It would be better for a child with a chronic illness to attend an educational setting with protective measures adapted to their situation, rather than not attending school for a long time," the document says.

Those measures include wearing a surgical mask, using transportation that does not involve close contact with other students and avoiding extracurricular activities where it is hard to maintain physical distance.

Health conditions that should lead to exemptions include a chronic condition that has led to the child being in a hospital's intensive care unit in recent years, and some serious cardiac and pulmonary illnesses that are hard to control.

The document urges doctors to use their own clinical judgment. It also says exemption notes for students with close family members who are at risk should be considered carefully.

The legal challenge launched by parents Friday states these guidelines are "discriminatory." 

"By limiting the exemption to the medical conditions found in that document, the directive creates a list that operates in a vacuum, ignoring the broader reality of the health risks associated with school attendance for all children," court documents state. 

The plaintiffs go on to accuse the government of being unreasonable by requiring a medical note when the effects of the virus on children are still not widely understood. 

"Parents are finding it excessively hard to either see a doctor in time, or obtain a medical note for the purposes of a school exemption," the court document continues. 

For her part, St-Pierre says the guidelines come as a relief because they can help steer decision-making.

"I feel that we have something strong, a scientific review based on the spring experience and the population of Quebec," she said.

St-Pierre worked at the Montreal Children's Hospital treating COVID-19 cases in the spring, and says there were very few young patients. She said none of those patients had severe symptoms. 

With files from Kate McKenna

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