School boards grapple with how to make Quebec's 'improvised' back-to-school plan work

School boards have two to three weeks to figure out how to bus their students to school, keep classrooms safe and offer distance-learning to students who stay home — easier said than done, according to administrators.

With little time to prepare for strict distancing rules, bus transportation a big challenge outside Montreal

School boards are concerned they won't have enough buses or drivers to transport students who must be seated one to a bench when elementary schools outside the greater Montreal area reopen on May 11. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

School board administrators across Quebec have two to three weeks to figure out how to organize bus transportation, classroom layouts and recess protocols, after the provincial government decided it would be the first in the country to reopen public schools.

Premier François Legault announced Monday that elementary schools in most regions of Quebec will reopen May 11, while those in the greater Montreal region, where there are far more cases of COVID-19, would have an extra week to get ready for a May 19 start date.

The chair of the Eastern Townships School Board, Michael Murray, said there are still many unknowns, including how he'll manage to get his students to school in the first place, with 80 per cent of the student body relying on bus transportation. 

Physical-distancing rules mean only one student per bench, so buses can carry just a fraction of the students they usually do.

"Typically our buses run pretty full, so we would need four times the number of buses in order to transport students," said Murray.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said Tuesday while bus transportation will be "a challenge", he said there will be more room because high-school students will be staying home.

"I think we will be able to manage it," Roberge said. Among the measures the government is suggesting is putting up plexiglass between drivers and the students as added protection, especially for drivers over the age of 60.

The chair of the Central Quebec School Board, Stephen Burke, doesn't think it will be that easy to solve the transportation issues.

He said his school board covers a third of the province's territory — from Quebec City to Shawinigan to La Tuque — and 90 per cent of students take the bus.

"Those are issues that I don't believe the minister or the government has really understood — nor what it means to reopen a school board such as ours," Burke said.

Burke said his staff has sent surveys to parents to determine how many students will be showing up for class on May 11, as they work on making sure they can comply with the directives.

The Cree School Board in northern Quebec has announced in-class learning is over for the rest of this school year, and it is moving all educational programs online. (Jonathon Hayward/The Canadian Press)

But he can't guarantee to those parents their children will be able to get on a bus, if they don't have the drivers to make the runs.

Most drivers are over the age of 60, Burke said, "and may well decide a plexiglass is not enough for them. And if that's the case, we won't have a bus to bring the students."

15 per classroom

Schools also have to determine how many students they are able to welcome, while respecting the minister's 15-student per classroom rule.

Burke said even if only 50 per cent of students show up, they will "quickly fill up the classrooms" in some schools that have very limited space.

Both Burke and Murray are also considering the needs of students who will be staying home, for whom teachers are being asked to prepare education material.

"To think that the same teacher should be teaching half-sized classrooms in person and then able to go online and teach some more seems outrageous," Murray said.

Distance-learning will also be problematic, Murray said, for the 10 per cent of his students in the Eastern Townships who don't have internet access.

The 25,000 work tablets with integrated cell service, announced by Minister Roberge on Monday, won't be of much use, Murray said, because areas without high-speed Internet often don't have a cell network either.

"That's the level of planning that has been done. So what we're seeing is that it is fundamentally inapplicable, in any practical sense. It's confused. It's improvised."

Montreal boards seek more space

On the island of Montreal, the epicentre of the virus in Quebec and Canada, school boards are being given one extra week to plan, and they are playing with a different deck of cards.

Noel Burke, who chairs the Lester B. Pearson School Board, said the scenarios to respect physical distancing in the classroom will vary from school to school and will depend greatly on how many parents decide to send their children back. 

"If 100 per cent of the children return to school, that presents a different challenge than if 75 per cent of them return to school," Burke said. 

outside shot of school board
The Lester B. Pearson School Board in Montreal's West Island is considering moving some of its elementary classes to empty high schools, to comply with physical-distancing measures. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Using empty space in high schools is one possibility he envisions, particularly because most of the board's high schools are close to elementary schools. 

The board is also working out how to be able to provide busing safely, which may include modifying the bus schedules to do more trips with fewer children on the bus. 

Burke said it is too soon to say how many staff will be absent due to health concerns, but he reassures parents that schools will be able to provide a safe educational environment. 

"It's voluntary, first of all," said Burke. "Secondly, we're surrounded by very professional educators, principals, administrators, teachers and assistant help, and we can ensure that the safest possible environment will be provided."

WATCH | Quebec's plan to get kids back to school explained:

Quebec is planning to reopen schools. Here's how it will work

3 years ago
Duration 2:37
Kids in daycare and elementary schools will be heading back to class as of May 11. What's that going to look like?

Mike Cohen, spokesperson for the English Montreal School Board, said the board will be contacting parents over the next week to ask them whether they plan on sending their children back to school. 

He said it is too soon to say whether the board will need to expand into high-school buildings to keep children at a safe distance from each other. 

"We have some schools that are full to capacity, and we have some schools that are not," Cohen said. "If there is a school where there is strong attendance, more than 15 per class, we'll have to look at alternatives."

"This is completely uncharted territory for everybody," he said. "People will have to be patient for the next few days while we go over all the protocols, and the answers will come."

With files from Spencer Van Dyk, Ainslie Maclellan and Victoria Emmanuelle Forest-Briand

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