How Quebec's back-to-school plans compare to other provinces

Quebec's plan is coming under fire from teachers and parents alike. Here's a look at how it stacks up against other jurisdictions.

Policies on masks, class sizes inconsistent across the country but experts say that’s normal

Kids were welcomed back to Laurier school in Montreal on Thursday. School will be much different for them than it was before the everything shut down in March due to the pandemic. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

As students and school staff across Canada get ready to head back to school, many are wondering if their provincial governments are doing enough to protect children and families. 

Quebec's plans are coming under fire from teachers and parents alike.

We took a look at some of the similarities and differences between Quebec and other provinces, and what experts had to say about it. 

Rules on masks 

In Quebec, masks are mandatory in hallways and common areas for students in Grade 5 and up, but not in classrooms.

And the province has even warned private schools and school boards about trying to pass their own, stricter rules. They do not have the power to do so, according to the Quebec government.

In Ontario, by contrast, masks will be mandatory for students in Grade 4 to 12, including in classrooms. 

But many other provinces have taken a similar approach to Quebec. 

After some hesitation, Manitoba, which at first only recommended masks, has now made them mandatory for common areas, but not classrooms.

British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Alberta also have similar mask regulations to Quebec, but some of Alberta's school boards are also requiring mask use in classrooms. 

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Alberta, said masks can be important in spaces where physically distancing isn't possible — such as hallways and the cafeteria — but that it makes sense for students to be able to take them off in the classroom.

"The question of whether or not masks add anything in a classroom setting is really an open question," said Saxinger. 

"Frankly, it is burdensome and sometimes uncomfortable to have them on all day," said Saxinger, "and part of the reason for that is communication is hard when you wear a mask." 

Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious disease specialist with the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, says Quebec should be stricter.

"Masks are an important part of the response," said Oughton. "We'd be better served to start at a higher degree of precaution and then back down rather than start at a lower degree of precaution and then work our way up."

Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec's public health director, has defended the decision to keep masks out of classrooms, saying health authorities will monitor the situation and tighten the regulations if they see a need to do so. 

"The health of children and of teachers and the community is our top priority. There is no perfect recipe when it comes to deconfinement and approaches are different throughout the world. We did not decide this alone in our bubble," Arruda said Tuesday. 

How many in each class?

In Quebec, all classes from elementary school to Grade 9 will remain at their regular pre-pandemic ratios. 

In-person attendance will be mandatory unless students are provided with a medical note that exempts them, for which the government has issued strict criteria. 

It's a little different for the oldest students.

School boards and service centres will have the option of either keeping the pre-pandemic ratio for students in Grades 10 and 11, or of putting students on an alternating schedule where they are in class 50 per cent of the time and learning online on the days they're home. 

Hand sanitizer and face masks will be commonplace in schools throughout Quebec. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

One thing that is the same for all grades: students will remain within the same class and room for most of their subjects, and it is the teachers who will move from classroom to classroom.

Larger class sizes may mean a higher risk of transmission, but when class sizes cannot be decreased because of issues like staffing and space, Saxinger stressed the importance of cohorting, also known as "bubbles." 

In Quebec, a student's cohort will be their entire classroom. 

The idea is simple: the more you limit a student's contacts, the easier it will be to trace those contacts and lower the risk of further transmission. 

But Saxinger cautioned that, for cohorting to be effective, students would need to keep that same group on their way to school and in their interactions after school. 

"It actually makes it a lot easier to contain potential school-based spread," said Saxinger.

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In British Columbia, cohorts, referred to there as "learning groups" are a lot larger than in Quebec.

Students in elementary and middle school may be grouped with a total of up to 60 students and those in high school up to 120.

Newfoundland and Labrador, on the other hand, takes a similar approach to Quebec, with a student's cohort being their classroom, and teachers moving from one cohort to another throughout the day.

Still a lot of unknowns 

One of the reasons back-to-school plans vary widely from province to province is because so much about the virus is still unknown.

That wide range of approaches may be frustrating to parents, but it will likely help scientists learn more about how the novel coronavirus spreads, as they evaluate what works and what doesn't.

"I think people are offended at the idea that we're experimenting with schools or kids, but I mean everyone is experimenting with everything right now," Saxinger said. 

According to the World Health Organization, children and adolescents under the age of 18 usually present only mild symptoms and make up only 1 to 3 per cent of infections so far, although they make up 29 per cent of the world's population.

It is still not well known to what extent children and adolescents spread the disease.

"The reality is, this is a complicated situation where there's not enough data to make very solid predictions," Oughton said. 

Saxinger says it's important to adjust as the situation evolves. Measures could be added should public health see the need. 

And Oughton says a system of rapid testing and contact tracing will be crucial once the inevitable outbreaks in schools start happening.

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