Montreal

Quebec's elementary and high schools to return to class Monday, Legault says

Quebec elementary and high school students will be back in class on Monday, less than a week away.

Teachers call for more safety measures before restarting in-person learning

When schools were closed about a week before Christmas, the return date was supposed to be Jan. 10. That has since been bumped up to Jan 17. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Quebec elementary and high school students will be back in class on Monday, less than a week away.

"It is very important for children to go back to school, to learn, to find their friends, to find a certain normalcy," says Premier François Legault in a post on Facebook Tuesday evening.

"The vast majority of children are not at a significant health risk with COVID. On the other hand, school delays and isolation can cause significant problems."

Legault says CEGEPs and universities will also be able to return in person and "we will give them some leeway to adjust."

The premier says he understands that returning to in-class learning can worry parents, teachers and school staff. He says it is reassuring that 98 per cent of high school teens have received one dose of the vaccine, and 89 per cent have received two doses.

"Our elementary school children are nearly 60 per cent vaccinated for the first dose and their immune response is very strong at this age," he says. "Teachers, for their part, have been massively vaccinated and have had priority access to the third dose since the end of December."

Complete details of the government's plan are expected to be revealed Thursday, but Legault says rapid tests will be made available to schools.

"Everyone will wear a mask at first. We know we're going to have to adjust in the first few days, but we've been there before," he says. "If everyone does their part, things will be fine and the children will regain their joy of living."

Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge posted to Twitter Wednesday, calling the announcement "good news for our students."

"Many measures have been taken to protect students and staff and meet the challenge of this necessary reopening," he says.

Teachers worry there's a lack of health measures

Montreal resident Ritika Malini says her seven-year-old son is enjoying online school, but he's been missing out by not being in the classroom.

"He's learning, yes, but he's not getting an experience — he's not experiencing learning," she said. "If he goes out, there's more exposure."

The head of the Montreal teachers' association, Lori Newton, said more safety measures are needed before schools reopen. For example, she said, teachers should be prioritized for PCR tests, as health-care workers are.

"What we would like to see is that any school personnel that would like to have an N95 mask, be able to get that," Newton said.

"We need to see that teachers can get access to rapid testing kits like the elementary and preschool students can have."

Sabrina Jafralie, a teacher at Westmount High School, said she's concerned about returning to the classroom, given the epidemiological situation.

She's worried teachers and students could catch the virus and put further pressure on the health-care system.

Westmount High School teacher Sabrina Jafralie worries students and teachers will be exposed to the highly contagious Omicron variant. (Submitted by Sabrina Jafralie)

She said while online learning can be an effective means of educating students, not enough has been done to upgrade upgrading the available online learning resources.

When classes do resume in person, Jafralie said she plans to wear an N95 mask.

Replacing teachers who are out sick or isolating

Daniel Gauthier, the head of the Syndicat de l'enseignement de la région de Québec, which represents teachers in the Quebec City area, is among those worried that no new protective measures have been announced to prevent outbreaks.

"When we reopen without increasing the measures, we close for longer a few weeks later," he said. "We have to make different choices."

Like many others, Gauthier is concerned about the lack of ventilation in classrooms and cafeterias. Even if students wear a mask in class, they are allowed to remove their masks to dine together, he said.

"There are obvious risks of spread and there is no change in current procedures," Gauthier said.

Clearly it's better for students to be in class, but "on the other hand, we always have concerns," said Simon Mainville, principal of the La Courvilloise high school in Quebec City.

He said one of the biggest headaches will be replacing teachers who contract COVID-19 or have to go into isolation as a preventive measure due to exposure.

But Mainville, despite his concerns, said he will be ready to welcome the students as soon as the Legault government gives the green light.

"Despite the difficulties, we roll up our sleeves, we do whatever it takes to provide good service," he said.

with files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio and Radio-Canada

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