It's back-to-school day for thousands of students across Quebec
Schools outside the Montreal region reopening gradually this week
Teachers and staff at schools across Quebec have spent the last two weeks moving desks, rearranging schedules and putting down tape in hallways to mark the two-metre distance their students will have to observe when they return to school on Monday.
The province is the first in Canada to widely reopen its schools after closing in March. Schools in the Montreal area, however, where the number of COVID-19 cases is far higher than the rest of the province, will remain closed until May 25.
Premier François Legault has been criticized by school boards as well as unions for what was seen by some as an "improvised" and hasty decision to move ahead with the reopening.
But Sophie Turgeon, principal at École Saint-Joseph elementary school in Lévis, near Quebec City, thinks it was the right thing to do.
"I think it's good that students will be able to go back to somewhat normal lives," Turgeon said on Sunday, excited she'd be seeing her students the next day.
After schools closed March 13, Turgeon was constantly thinking of those children who didn't have a support system at home.
"I was afraid of the inequalities that may have surfaced because of this crisis."
When students arrive on Monday morning, they will face a reality very different from the one they left in March.
A staff member will greet them with a bottle of hand disinfectant. Students will then go directly to their desks with their coats and boots — in order to avoid crowds in the hallways where they normally hang up their things.
The students will also eat their lunch in their classroom. In theory, they will not be in contact with the rest of the school at all, taking turns to go outside for recess.
Some of the new directives, including limiting the number of students per classroom to 15, came from the Ministry of Education and from public health officials. But Turgeon said "the creative, intelligent minds on our team" deserve most of the credit for coming up with ideas to make sure kids respect the restrictions, Turgeon said.
Learning to 'adapt to a new routine'
Marie-Michèle Mercier, who teaches Grades 5 and 6, will only have 12 of her 25 regular students. Those who couldn't fit into the new classroom layout have been reassigned to another room with a new teacher.
"We're trying to stay as zen as possible," Mercier said. "This virus — everyone is afraid of it — but we have to learn to live with it and adapt to a new routine."
At first, when she heard Legault say during his daily televised briefing that schools would reopen, she had her doubts.
"But now that everything is in place, the stress level has gone down, and we'll just have to stay very conscious of these new habits."
Not everyone is on board, however.
Nearly a third of staff members at the Commission Scolaire des Navigateurs (CSDN) requested a leave of absence, some for medical reasons.
The board's chair, Esther Lemieux, said it wasn't possible to grant leave to all 500 people who requested it, out of a total workforce of around 1,500.
"There is a level of anxiety," Lemieux acknowledged. "People want to see their students, but they are facing the unknown."
Lemieux said the "gigantic" task of organizing the reopening is nonetheless going smoothly.
Transportation a challenge
For several school boards in Quebec, the transportation of students has been one of the biggest obstacles.
Only one student is allowed to sit in every row on the bus, "quadrupling" demand for some bus runs, Lemieux said.
Nonetheless, the CSDN has arranged transportation for all 2,500 students who needed it, even though every bus can only carry 12 students at a time, instead of 72.
Not so for the Central Quebec School Board (CQSB), which informed parents it would not be able to provide bus transportation, at least not for the week of May 11.
The English school board covers a large region of the province, stretching from Quebec City to Shawinigan. Forty-six per cent of the CQSB's students will be returning.
Chair Stephen Burke called the busing situation "a very intricate problem" that hasn't been resolved yet.
"It's very complicated," Burke said. "Part of it we do ourselves, but part of it is done with French school boards."
WATCH | Here's how school will look upon reopening:
At the Eastern Shores School Board, in eastern Quebec, only 30 per cent of students have signed up to return.
French school boards recorded larger numbers. At the CSDN, 78 per cent of students will be returning. At the Beauce-Etchemin board, 73.5 per cent of students have registered to go back.
The Eastern Townships School Board delayed its reopening to May 13, in part because of the busing situation.
Most First Nations schools across Quebec, meanwhile, will stay closed for the rest of the year.
In all cases, the return isn't mandatory. Parents can choose to keep their children at home if they wish.
The decision to send two of her boys back to school wasn't one Marie-Michèle Racine took lightly.
With five boys between the ages of two and nine, Racine said she could have decided to keep Olivier, nine, and Gabriel, six, at home with their younger siblings.
After a lot of back-and-forth with her husband, they decided the brothers would go back to their school in Quebec City's Val-Bélair neighbourhood.
"They are both hooked on school and have been dreaming of going back since the very beginning," she said.
Communicating with teachers and staff also made the difference for Lucie V. Desrosiers.
But so did the relatively low number of cases in the Lower Saint-Lawrence region where she lives with her seven-year-old son, Olivier.
"My decision may have been different if we were in Montreal," the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in Quebec, she said.
Desrosiers said her school sent clear directives explaining all the hygiene rules, similar to those at École Saint-Joseph.
Olivier has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Making sure he doesn't fall behind in class was the main reason Desrosiers wanted him to go back.
"He is just anxious to go back. His life, his world is at school."