Pressure mounting for Legault to delay return to school

Quebec's English-language school boards say that they will be the ones to decide when it is safe to bring students back to class.

English-language school boards insist classes will only resume when it is safe to do so

With elementary schools set to open in Montreal later this month, some parents and teachers worry it is happening too soon. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Quebec's English-language school boards say that they will be the ones to decide when it is safe to bring students back to class.

"There are still far too many unknowns that compromise the ability of school boards to safely and effectively reopen schools," said the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA), in a statement issued Friday. 

The QESBA statement called the government's decision this week to reopen elementary schools on May 11 in most regions and on May 19 in greater Montreal "a hastily announced plan ... that has had the effect of significantly raising anxiety and stress levels among teachers and parents."

Noel Burke, the chair of the Lester Pearson School Board, and QESBA's vice-president, said boards want to help the government realize its objectives, but they haven't been adequately consulted.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge "has had six weeks, and all of this analysis and advice he could have got from the administrators was not undertaken in that time," Burke said.

"The announcement was made last Monday, and suddenly everybody has to scramble."

"The hard dates and arbitrary nature of the announcement and position are unreasonable."

QESBA said its member school boards will take the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in their respective regions into consideration as they decide when to reopen.

Outside of Montreal, Burke said, infection rates are less of a concern, and the biggest problem may be transportation.

In Central Quebec, 90 per cent of students take the bus to school, and some buses are shared with French school boards. Arranging those logistics to ensure physical-distancing directives are followed will be no easy task, said Burke.

The English Montreal School Board, one of the boards represented by QESBA, also released a statement, saying its "elementary schools will not reopen until student and staff safety can be assured" it is safe to do so.

Students are slated to return to Quebec elementary schools starting on May 11. (Jonathon Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Teachers in hot spots worried

In Montreal, some neighbourhoods are more worrisome than others, especially Montréal-Nord, which has the city's highest number of positive COVID-19 cases.

The union representing elementary school teachers in Montréal-Nord, Saint-Michel and Rivière-des-Prairies called on the government to delay the reopening.

"These are neighbourhoods with overcrowding of students in several of its schools," Serafino Fabrizi, the union's president, said in a statement late Thursday.

"Also, because of the higher risk of contamination, teachers living outside these neighbourhoods could easily become transmission vectors for Montreal and its surroundings."

Christine Black, the borough mayor of Montréal-Nord, has also questioned the restart date, arguing the poverty and dense living spaces in her community exacerbates the challenges people face in a pandemic.

A testing clinic opened Friday in Montréal-Nord, and anyone with symptoms in the community — not just essential workers — can call 514-644-4545 for an appointment.

Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province's public health director, said increased testing would also be carried out in schools if a case if reported.

"We are concerned with quickly detecting any possible outbreak that could occur in one of our deconfining environments, including schools or businesses," he said.

Changing the timeline still an option, Legault says

Premier François Legault said Thursday he could push back the reopening of elementary schools and daycares if necessary.

"I want to be clear, we have announced our reopening plan, but it is not starting this week. Gatherings are still forbidden; it's not the time to stop our efforts of social distancing. It's time to be more disciplined than ever," Legault said. 

Michael Silkoff, who teaches children with special needs at Westmount Park Elementary, said he doesn't buy the government's claim that the return to school will help his students.

"The government is taking the approach that this is mostly for them, and my point is to argue that it's not really for them. It's more for the economy," said Silkoff.

He said he's also worried about whether he should wear personal protective equipment while at work. Roberge said Thursday that teachers will not be provided with masks because, he said, they are not necessary.

Meanwhile, most First Nations elementary schools in the province are choosing to stay closed for the remainder of the school year. 

"Our primary observations were that many communities have a reality that is different from the province, so we decided to stray away from their decision and assist each community to determine whether they're going to reopen or not," said Denis Gros-Louis, head of the First Nations Education Council.

Number of cases still high, epidemiologist says

Dr. David Buckeridge, a professor at McGill University's faculty of medicine in the department of epidemiology, said the decision is understandably difficult for parents.

"The whole move to reopen has to be tempered by continuing to keep an eye on what's actually happening," Buckeridge said on CBC Montreal's Daybreak on Friday. 

Dr. David Buckeridge, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at McGill University, says officials will have to watch the situation extra closely as schools reopen. (Courtesy David Buckeridge)
"It does seem that cases have not really completely dropped off, they've kind of plateaued."

He added, however, that it's unclear whether things will be much different in the fall, if parents choose to wait until then.

Some parents across the province have also expressed worry about the schools reopening. Close to 300,000 people have signed an online petition urging the government to delay the reopening until September.

With files from Jay Turnbull, Jessica Deer, Benjamin Shingler and CBC Montreal's Daybreak

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now