Montreal

Quebec scraps masks in class for elementary, high school students after March break

Elementary and high school students in Quebec will no longer be required to wear masks in class, starting just after March break. Some health experts and school associations say it's too soon to lift the measure.

Measure lifts March 7 across most Quebec regions, including Montreal

Grade 1 students wear masks as they attend class at Honoré Mercier elementary school in Montreal. As of March 7, they will no longer be required to mask up. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Quebec elementary and high schools students will no longer be required to wear masks in class when they return from March break, Quebec Public Health announced Tuesday. 

The decision comes after a recommendation Monday by public health officials. 

The measure will be lifted March 7 for students in several Quebec regions, including Montreal, the Outaouais, the Abitibi, the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean and the North Shore.

All other students, including those in Laval, Quebec City and the Chaudière-Appalaches, will have to wait until March 14, as their spring break falls a week later. 

Students must continue to wear a mask in common areas, when travelling between classrooms and on school transport until further notice.

Masks are still required in CEGEP and university classes.

"The situation is improving and this is also reflected in the school environment," Health Minister Christian Dubé said in a news release.

The announcement was met with mixed reaction from health experts and school associations. 

Elementary and high school students must continue to wear a mask in common areas, when travelling between classrooms and on school transport until further notice. (Hadin Hassin/Radio-Canada)

"If we are able to tolerate this risk, I think it's worth it because it will allow young people to develop more adequately and help them learn more easily," said Dr. Caroline Quach, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Montreal's Sainte-Justine Hospital.

But for Katherine Korakakis, president of Quebec's English Parents' Committee Association, doing away with the measure after a holiday break, when children have likely been in more contact with others than before, is not the right move.

"It's too soon. It's way too soon. It's not a good idea. Like, at least let's wait until we can open windows and people are not freezing to death in classrooms," she said.

"I mean, after March break is such a bad idea."

Pediatrician 'slightly worried'

Dr. Olivier Drouin, another Montreal pediatrician, says the decision could be responsible if it's based on science, however he is concerned about  dropping the measure at the same time most other pandemic restrictions will be lifted in the province.

Dr. Olivier Drouin, a Montreal pediatrician, says he would have waited longer to scrap the mask mandate in classes. (Submitted by Olivier Drouin)

"Doing all of this simultaneously, without having good access to PCR tests, meaning not knowing exactly what's going on in the community, and therefore having a one-to-two week lag to show what's happening on the hospitalization level — I'm slightly worried," he said. 

Drouin said the worst thing the province can do is drop the measure and then reimpose it two weeks later. He says that kind of back and forth is what is hurting the population's trust and affecting people's willingness to follow to public health rules. 

"I would probably have waited a tiny bit more, but I just hope that it's not going to be a mistake," he said. 

The lifting of the restriction comes amid strong vaccination rates among the province's youth and after more than 2 million Quebecers tested positive for the virus during the fifth wave.

Vaccination coverage is highest among 12- to 17-year-olds, with 99 per cent having received at least one dose. The percentage of 5- to 11-year-olds with at least one dose is 64 per cent.

Most health measures in Quebec will be lifted as of March 14, including the vaccination passport.

The right time? 

Heidi Yetman, the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, says it's frustrating that the government has made yet another decision about mandates in schools without consulting teachers' committees. 

"You're creating rules without knowing what it is to be in the classroom," she said. "Two years ago, I remember this, [Quebec said] everybody's going to stay two metres apart. Well, they have obviously never been in a kindergarten class."

Yetman says the right time to lift the mask mandate in classrooms is when it's lifted for the entire population.

"Why is it that the rules inside schools are so different than the rules for the general population? Teachers are really feeling like we are pawns in this game and that the government really doesn't respect us, and they're not listening to us," she said. 

A teacher spaces out desks at Willingdon Elementary School in Montreal. But Heidi Yetman says keeping kids distanced in kindergarten and younger grades is nearly impossible. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Marie-Pascale Pomey, public health researcher and professor at the Université de Montréal says it's difficult to know when the right time is to remove masks.

Dropping the measure in classrooms will "probably" lead to more transmission, she says, adding officials will have to monitor the spread very closely, even though the province is no longer offering widespread PCR testing. 

"But we can follow absences. We saw around the return to class after Christmas, there was a relatively high rate of absences, so we know that the virus can circulate a fair bit in the classroom," said Pomey.

Pomey says ensuring proper ventilation of classes and keeping desks well-distanced will help mitigate the spread. 

She says if that transmission is not well-managed, it could lead to more community transmission, and Quebec could see a return to stricter measures.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sabrina Jonas

Web reporter

Sabrina Jonas is a web reporter with CBC Montreal. She was previously based at CBC Toronto after graduating from Ryerson's School of Journalism. Sabrina has a particular interest in social justice issues and human interest stories. Drop her an email at sabrina.jonas@cbc.ca

With files from Ainslie McCallum and Radio-Canada's Tout un matin

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