Quebec still plans to reopen schools Jan. 17
7 million more rapid tests to be handed out in preschools and elementary schools
Quebec will distribute seven million rapid tests to preschools and elementary school students and staff, and says it's sticking to the plan of reopening schools in two weeks.
The return to online learning in the province has been chaotic, as parents and teachers scramble to make sure students have the right materials.
Education Minister Jean-François Roberge says the province will provide students without internet access at home with LTE sticks they can plug into their computers. He said school service centres and boards can request computers from the government if they need some to provide some to children who don't have any.
Roberge provided an update Wednesday afternoon on the school situation as most students' holiday break is now over. Public Health Director Dr. Horacia Arruda joined him at the news conference.
The pair said they are not planning on further delaying the return to in-person learning, which is scheduled for Jan. 17. It was delayed from Jan. 10 last week.
"I'm pretty confident that we will go back to in-person teaching and learning Jan. 17, but I can't be sure 100 per cent, of course, because COVID is COVID and we have to listen to public health," Roberge said, adding that public health experts have said they are in favour of reopening as soon as possible because of the negative effects keeping schools closed can have on children and their development.
Arruda agreed, saying, the province "would have to be in high crisis" to close schools again.
Roberge and Arruda also announced the period of isolation for students under the age of 12, as well as teachers, would be reduced to five days instead of 10. Earlier this week, the province reduced the isolation period for all Quebecers with two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine from 10 to five days.
School daycare services will remain open, but will continue to prioritize the children of essential workers, such as health-care workers, unless a parent is an exceptional situation and needs the help.
Several parent and teacher committees have said they don't see how schools can reopen in two weeks, as the number of hospitalizations in the province threatens to overwhelm the health-care network — which is now coping with 1,750 COVID patients in hospitals.
They also expressed concern there won't be enough staff out of isolation for schools to function properly.
The government announcement "failed to provide any response to the questions parents have right now," said Kévin Roy, the president of the Fédération des comités de parents du Québec, in a statement following the update.
Roberge said he hoped the reduced isolation time would remedy part of that problem and that he preferred have to close some individual classrooms temporarily, rather than all of them.
Half of the seven million at-home rapid tests are expected to be handed out when students return to school and the other half in February.
As of Jan. 15, teachers will be eligible for PCR testing, along with the other groups the province is reserving the tests for, including health-care workers, as well as those in high-risk settings such as hospitals, long-term care homes, detention centres and homeless shelters.
Air exchangers or purifiers?
Teachers' unions have called on the provincial government to do more to make schools safe before allowing students to return.
They say teachers were still being asked to keep windows open for ventilation before the break, but that it's not always feasible in the middle of winter.
Roberge said 50,000 carbon dioxide detectors will be distributed to schools by Friday and that another 40,000 will arrive in January and February.
The readers can help determine whether a class is well ventilated or not by showing whether there is too much exhaled air present, which can increase the risk of the spread of infection via aerosols.
Roberge said 400 air exchanger have also been sent to schools that requested them, and that more remain available upon request.
The parents federation wants to know what the next steps will be once all the carbon dioxide detectors are rolled out.
"CO2 readers are not a solution to the air quality problem we're seeing in our schools. It's been 18 months that we've known this is a problem," said Roy. "When are we going to resolve this?"
Critics have also pointed out that Ontario is giving teachers who want N95 masks access to them, as well as providing air purifiers to a number of classrooms.
Arruda said Quebec's public health experts say the masks are not necessary in school settings because surgical masks provide sufficient protection and N95s can be uncomfortable to wear all day.
The Centrale des syndicats du Québec called the decision to hold off on using N95 masks incomprehensible.
"The explanations being given by the minister Roberge and the director of the Public Health are not at all sufficient," said their president Éric Gingras in a statement.
"Is this because there is a shortage of N95 masks? If that's the case, then we should say it."
As for purifiers, Arruda said air exchangers are preferred by the province because they bring in fresh air and expel stale air, which he said is better than filtering and reusing classroom air.