Quebec elementary students return to class, but questions remain about safety

Elementary schools in Quebec are reopening today with new infection control measures in place, but unions, parents and experts are worried the government still isn't doing enough to keep classrooms safe from COVID-19. 

Quebec frustrated some health professionals by refusing to expand use of air purifiers in classrooms

Elementary school students return to class on Monday after the spending the last week learning online. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Elementary schools in Quebec are reopening today with new infection control measures in place, but unions, parents and experts are worried the government still isn't doing enough to keep classrooms safe from COVID-19. 

Students in elementary school will now be required to wear masks in hallways, common spaces and buses. Those in Grades 5 and 6 will also have to wear a mask inside their classrooms.

Quebec announced the changes last week, part of the latest round of public health rules aimed at stemming the tide of infections.

At the current pace, infections and hospitalizations are threatening to overrun the provincial health-care system, which is already struggling to find extra capacity to deal with the onslaught of new cases. 

The situation is sufficiently dire that Premier François Legault took the extraordinary step of imposing a provincewide curfew, which began Saturday, and extending the closure of non-essential retail stores.

Montreal's Turcot Interchange was empty during Quebec's first night of curfew. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Since the start of the second wave, more than 21,000 students and teachers have tested positive for COVID-19.

Elementary classes are resuming in-person on Monday after a week of online learning. High school students will continue learning online for another week before in-person classes resume on Jan. 18.

But so far Legault's government has resisted using extended school closures as a means of bringing the second wave under control.

Controversy over air purifiers

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said extending the mask mandate to elementary students will help limit the number of new infections at schools.

At the same time, though, Roberge opted not to implement a number of other measures that have been used elsewhere.

Most controversial was his decision to forgo installing air purifiers in classrooms across the province, a tool advocates believe is essential to combating aerosol transmission of COVID-19. 

Roberge's decision was based on recommendations from public health officials, who claim air purifiers are too complicated to install in classrooms and not efficient enough to be of much use. 

That angered members of COVID-STOP, a group of health professionals that has been pushing the government to take aerosol transmission more seriously, especially in schools.

The public health recommendations on air purifiers are out of step with a growing body of international scientific evidence, said Nancy Delagrave, the group's scientific director.

Elementary students in Grades 5 and 6 will have to wear masks in classrooms, under new rules announced last week. (AP)

"I'm surprised we're still have this debate in Quebec," she said. "We feel that Public Health needs to have a more multi-disciplinary point of view."

One of Quebec's largest teachers' unions is also urging Roberge to reconsider the value of air purifiers.

"I think he's jumping to conclusions too quickly," Sonia Ethier, who heads the Centrale des syndicats du Québec, a public-sector union that represents around 65,000 teachers in the province.

She dismissed some of the minister's reasons for rejecting air purifiers, such as noise levels, and said teachers could easily be instructed on where to place them.

The minister's arguments against purifiers, she said, "were stitched together with a big white thread."

Multiplying measures

Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious disease specialist at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital, said the science surrounding ventilation and COVID-19 is complicated.

It's not uncommon for different experts to draw different conclusions from the same set of data, he said.

But he acknowledged that air purifiers could contribute to lowering infections in schools, especially if combined with other public health measures. 

One option is reducing class sizes. This could be achieved by allowing parents to keep their children at home and learn online, a policy adopted by Ontario at the outset of the school year. 

The CSQ teacher union is proposing cutting class sizes in half by alternating the days students attend school in-person, which is already done in some high schools.

"You could argue air purifiers can be used as a temporary bridging measure, on top of other measures, such as everyone masking, trying to improve distancing in classrooms and making sure there is easy access to hand sanitizers," Oughton said.

Without a wider range of protective measures in place, though, and with infection rates still sky high, many parents are anxious about sending their children back into classrooms.

Berta Ricciuti, a Montreal high school teacher and mother of four, said she was "absolutely not comfortable" with her daughter starting class on Monday and wants continued access to online learning.

"[Legault] should give us the choice," she said Sunday. "We are better placed to judge the well-being of our children."

With files from Chloe Ranaldi

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