A return to school this spring is possible, Legault says

The economy and the education system go together, Legault said during his daily update on Friday, and the government is "not excluding the possibility" of reopening schools in some capacity in early May.

Public health authorities seek to balance pandemic response with economic needs

Could this be Quebec's classroom of the future? Students at an elementary school in Nagoya, Japan, sit apart from each other as they study. (Kyodo/via Reuters)

With signs that the current wave of coronavirus infections may be reaching its peak in Quebec, Premier François Legault has hinted at restarting the province's languishing economy — and possibly reopening schools and daycares.

The economy and the education system go together, Legault said during his daily update on Friday, and the government is "not excluding the possibility" of reopening schools in some capacity in early May.

"Some parents, some workers, they have children and those children, if they are not at school or in a daycare, they are at home so they cannot work," he said.

"I don't want to take any risks that are too high but at the same time, we need eventually to restart the economy and give hope to the population."

The province will continue to discuss the matter with the public health authority, Legault said, noting that "nothing is decided" at this point.

The head of the public health authority, Dr. Horacio Arruda, said that they are looking at different strategies, like reconfiguring spaces in school settings or reducing the number of children in specific classroom contexts.

Children, Arruda said, generally suffer mild symptoms if they are infected.  

"They will be almost immunised against it and they are not going to contribute to giving the infection to older" people, Arruda said.

Arruda said his department also needs to find a balance between slowing the progress of COVID-19 and dealing with the impacts of isolation on an entire population.

The health authority will look at incremental means of allowing a return to normal life — including getting children back to school — otherwise "people are going to go crazy," he said.

"We're going to have depression, suicide, all that kind of stuff that could happen if we are confined for a long time," he said.

"So it's also, we don't want to have a system that will be overwhelmed by cases but at the same time we want to prevent other issues of public health too."

Because COVID-19 is so new, research remains relatively limited. Some studies suggest children may play a significant role in the spread of the disease, while others consider the possibility that school closures may have a minimal impact on mortality rates.

Teachers question proposal

But teachers' groups in the province fear reopening of schools too soon could lead to a second wave of infections. 

The head of Quebec's largest teacher's union CSQ, Sonia Ethier, says there is still too much risk involved.

"Is the government about to wipe out all the efforts Quebecers have made up to now?" she asked. "I don't think this is the right message to send to the public."

Heidi Yetman, the head of the Quebec provincial association of teachers and a high school teacher, also questioned the logistics of Legault's proposal. 

"I don't know how they're going to do that," Yetman said. "If you've ever been in a hallway in a high school, it is shoulder-to-shoulder."

 An online petition calling for the closure of daycares and schools until next September has more than 114,000 signatures.

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