Quebec teachers demand N95 masks, better ventilation as province prepares for return to school

As elementary and high school students are set to return to in-person classes on Monday, many teachers fear classrooms still aren’t safe from COVID-19 transmission, despite government assurances.

Unions say classrooms aren’t yet safe, accuse Quebec government of ‘wilful blindness’ 

Unions representing Quebec teachers are calling on the government to provide N95 masks for staff and mechanical ventilation systems for each classroom, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Quebec teachers unions are slamming the government's decision to reopen elementary and high schools without providing teachers with N95 masks and outfitting all classrooms with mechanical ventilation systems.

The unions' reaction follows the province's announcement that in-person classes would resume Monday, despite admissions that reopening could lead to a "very large number" of teacher absences.

While online learning is "far from ideal" for families and students, the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers said in a statement it was "astonished" that the government was sending students back to class without further safety measures.

The Quebec government said in a technical briefing Friday that CO2 readers will be coming to Quebec classrooms this coming week, to better assess the ventilation needs in Quebec schools.

Schools with elevated levels of CO2 in their classrooms will be able to request an air exchanger from the government. Officials said no request would be denied.

The Fédération autonome de l'enseignement (FAE), which represents members of nine teachers' unions, warned in a statement of classrooms becoming "incubators" for COVID-19 transmission, and accused the Legault government of "wilful blindness." 

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said Thursday that the government will distribute about seven million rapid tests to students over the coming two months, and make sure tests are available in schools if students have symptoms.

Montreal schools accounted for nearly half of all COVID-19 outbreaks in the city in December, according to Montreal public health figures. 

But interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau said at a press conference Thursday that school outbreaks simply reflected the existing community transmission and "might not be a factor" in driving the spread of the virus. 

N95 masks for teachers of specialized classes only

Roberge also announced that N95 masks will only be made available to teachers who work in specialized settings for students with disabilities, because those students may not be able to wear masks of their own.

Boileau echoed the stance of his predecessor, Dr. Horacio Arruda, in yesterday's news conference, saying there is "no reason to believe" that N95 masks offer better protection to teachers in regular classrooms. 
In a review of scientific literature conducted before the Omicron wave, Quebec's public health research institute, the INSPQ, found that while N95 masks performed better in laboratory tests, they were not shown to be superior to procedural masks “in real workplace contexts." (Guy Leblanc/Radio-Canada)

That aligns with a new publication released by Quebec's public health research institute, the INSPQ, yesterday.

In a review of scientific literature performed before the Omicron wave, the INSPQ found that in laboratory tests, properly-adjusted N95 masks do a better job of blocking out small aerosolized particles than procedural masks do.

However, the INSPQ states that "in real workplace contexts" scientific findings don't show that one type of mask is better than the other. 

In fact, the INSPQ said adherence to mask wearing was better with procedural masks, possibly because people found the tight-fitting N95s uncomfortable.

Quebec public health officials cited this as a reason not to recommend their use in schools, adding that without a "fit test" they might not be as effective. 

However that stance appears to be at odds with the most recent advice from federal Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, who said in December that even three-ply medical masks might not be enough to guard against Omicron and that people should opt for N95-type respirators if possible.

Like Quebec, Alberta has opted not to recommend N95 use in schools

Ontario, meanwhile, is sending millions of N95 masks to school staff, while Manitoba is distributing KN95s to the general public. 

Some experts believe the Quebec government should err on the side of caution in protecting teachers. 

"If I was a teacher, I would have preferred having an N95 mask, given the transmissibility of the virus," said Dr. Christopher Labos, a Montreal epidemiologist and cardiologist, in an interview with CBC News.

WATCH | Montreal epidemiologist urges caution, as students return to class:

Worst may be behind us, but Quebec has long road ahead, warns epidemiologist

9 days ago
Duration 4:04
Epidemiologist and cardiologist Dr. Christopher Labos warns that even if Quebec has hit the peak of its Omicron wave, hospitals remain fragile. 4:04

Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, said N95s usually do protect the user better than medical masks do, "especially when you're talking about prolonged exposure, which I think is exactly the situation that teachers are in."

In an interview with CBC Montreal's Daybreak, Oughton added that without more real-time data on air quality in schools, and with PCR testing off-limits for most of the population, it is difficult to quantify the risks that Quebec is taking by sending kids back to school and lifting other measures.

"It's as if we're in a car, driving down the highway and all of sudden we hit a really bad patch of fog," he said. 

"To me the sensible thing to do in that setting is you slow down rather than hope that the road ahead of you is clear."

With files from Radio-Canada, CBC Montreal's Daybreak and Laura Marchand


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