No classroom bubbles or masks in class when Quebec students return this fall
Province optimistic more activities will be allowed compared to last year
Quebec won't require students in primary and secondary schools to wear masks when they are sitting at their desks this fall as the province seeks to create a more normal classroom setting for the coming academic year.
Teachers will also not be required to wear masks if they can maintain the two-metre distance, and students will no longer need to stay in their classroom bubbles throughout the day.
Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced the changes Wednesday in laying out his back-to-school plan.
At a news conference, Roberge said the high vaccination rate among 12- to 17-year-olds allowed for an easing of restrictions, despite the province heading into the beginning of a fourth wave of COVID-19.
As it stands, 82 per cent of teens in that age group have received a dose of vaccine, and 48 per cent have received both. Roberge said he expects at least 77 per cent will be fully vaccinated by the time classes resume.
But he said the increased presence of the more contagious delta variant led the province to maintain mask requirements in common areas. In June he had said they would not be necessary in the fall.
Isabelle Charest, the province's junior education minister, said sports and other activities would also be permitted, though a vaccination passport could be required in some cases.
WATCH | Roberge says school will be better than last year:
Province seeks to walk 'narrow path'
The revised measures will also apply to students under 12, who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
Dr. Yves Jalbert, deputy director of public health for Quebec, acknowledged there are risks in allowing more interaction among students.
"We have to walk a narrow path between allowing students to come back to a normal way of life and fighting this pandemic," he said.
"This is the position that we have right now about the class bubbles. We'll see what happens and we are following the situation very closely."
The AMDES, an association representing Montreal school administrators, welcomed the plan but cautioned that some schools in lower income areas have lower vaccination rates, and that that inequity must be addressed.
Heidi Yetman, the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, said she's skeptical the mask rules will be enough to contain a fourth wave.
"I'm very concerned," she said. "We have no bubbles, we have no distancing between students and ventilation is still an issue."
Yetman said the province's ever-changing restrictions last year took a toll on teachers, and that the government must still do more to improve air quality in classrooms to ensure the virus isn't circulating.
Air quality still a concern
Quebec's Education Ministry had promised to have CO2 detectors in every class by the beginning of the school, but later revised its target to say it would have them installed by the end of fall 2021.
At a technical briefing earlier Wednesday, officials said the province would install 90,000 detectors in all classrooms across the province starting in September through the end of December.
Radio-Canada reported Wednesday that Quebec didn't publish its call for tenders until mid-July. The accepted offers will roll out over the next four months.
Teachers will be taught how to assess the air quality in classrooms and the province will take action if required, officials said.
Despite criticism over his handling of the issue, Roberge said Wednesday Quebec was ahead of other provinces when it comes to testing and ensuring air quality in schools.
with files from Sarah Leavitt