Montreal

Parents worry as Quebec considers extending school closures past Jan. 11

With the possibility of schools staying closed for longer on the horizon, parents worry about the consequences of distance learning on their families' well-being.

Many students have still not caught up after last year's lockdown

Many parents and teachers question the value of distance learning, especially for younger pupils. (Radio-Canada)

As Quebec COVID-19 cases continue to soar, the government is weighing new measures to slow contagion. Among them: keeping schools closed for a week longer than planned this holiday break, according to Radio-Canada.

In December, with COVID-19 cases rising, Quebec ordered all schools to stop in-person attendance until Jan. 11, with the exception of specialized schools for vulnerable students.

Premier François Legault will announce updated measures at a news conference at 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

It's not yet clear whether students in both elementary and high school will be returning to in-person classes as planned or if they will do online learning for one or two weeks first.

Throughout the pandemic, the value of distance learning has divided educators and parents alike.

Heidi Yetman, the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, which represents 8,000 English-language teachers, says students are still catching up on their studies after last spring's lockdown.

"For some students, it's almost as if they didn't go to school at all last year," Yetman said. "Students are behind, and this pandemic will affect students for years to come."

Mixed messages

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Matthew Oughton says inconsistent health guidelines, such as the different rules about masks in schools — a vivid example of how policies have shifted — have contributed to the spread of the virus.

"There's data that shows schools are important contributors toward community transmission and outbreaks, and have we done a full measure of restrictions when it comes to schools? Clearly we haven't," Oughton said.

Last summer, the province's plan to send students back to school did not include masks, except for some staff.

That changed in August, when students in Grade 5 and up were told they would be wearing masks when moving around the school, but not in class. But by October, in red zones, all high school students were wearing masks in classrooms.

"Even if there have been a certain level of restrictions, it hasn't been enough to really get this back down under control," Oughton said. "It certainly leads to a large degree of frustration. People are saying, 'Well, look. We've been doing this for so long, how come it's not working?'"

On Monday evening, the English Parents' Committee Association (EPCA) of Quebec launched an online survey to assess whether parents preferred their kids to continue distance learning.

Out of the more than 5,000 responses, 62 per cent were in favour of extending online learning beyond Jan. 11, according to EPCA president Katherine Korakakis.

Mental health challenges

Veronika Zilberman, who has two children aged 6 and 3, says she understands the reason for ongoing public health restrictions, but she says their effects on her family's mental health are worrisome.

Zilberman, who works in patient support, says co-ordinating her children's education in December while keeping up with professional responsibilities was difficult.

"For a lot of the [school] questions that come up, I have to stop what I'm doing to help her," Zilberman said. "We're not able to see the light at the end of this tunnel because others don't follow the rules."

with files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio and Radio-Canada's Sébastien Bovet

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