Safety concerns abound as Quebec students head back to school this week

Some parents and officials fear the Quebec government hasn't implemented adequate COVID-19 measures to keep kids safe as they head back to class this week.

Air quality a key worry, though return to classrooms delayed a day in most of Montreal due to winter storm

Most schools on the island of Montreal have postponed reopening until Tuesday due to a winter storm. (Hadin Hassin/Radio-Canada)

After a prolonged holiday break and a switch to virtual learning, thousands of Quebec students are headed back to classrooms this week. But some parents and officials fear the government hasn't implemented adequate COVID-19 measures to keep the community safe.

Last week, the government announced it would go ahead with its plan to reopen schools to in-person learning Monday, despite the high infection rate of the Omicron variant. However, most schools on the island of Montreal have postponed reopening until Tuesday due to a winter storm.

The Quebec government promised a series of measures to ensure a safe return to school, including more masking indoors and 7.2 million rapid tests deployed to elementary schools. 

The province also said Friday that CO2 readers will be coming to classrooms across the province starting this week and continuing into February to better assess ventilation needs in Quebec schools. But some parents aren't reassured. 

"Here we are in the fifth wave, still no ventilation," said Shelley Reuter, who has been sending her 11-year-old son to school with an N95 mask since September.

CO2 readers can help determine whether a class is well-ventilated by showing whether there is too much exhaled air present, which can increase the risk of the spread of infection via aerosols. 

Reuter said the lack of communication from the school board is worrisome. 

"They're too little, too late," she said. "I'm resigned to having COVID by the end of the week." 

Teachers demand N95 masks

For Josée Scalabrini, president of the Fédération des syndicats de l'enseignement, which represents more than 65,000 teachers in Quebec, the government's approach to reopening schools is incoherent.

"We are told that we are at a peak, that our health-care system is no longer able to take it, but we are bringing everyone back to our schools," Scalabrini said.

Quebec says schools are now no longer required to shut down in the event of an outbreak, but can transition to online teaching if more than 60 per cent of the students are in isolation. Teachers and unions have been demanding N95 masks and better ventilation to lower the risk of this happening. 

Russell Copeman, the executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association, says a number of school boards have installed air purifiers with HEPA filters in classrooms without mechanical ventilation on their own dime. 

Air purifiers with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can reduce the concentration of some viruses in the air by capturing small particles, such as the water droplets that can carry the coronavirus. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"Air purifiers are not recommended by the government of Quebec, not funded by the government of Quebec, despite the fact that Ontario has ordered 73,000 standalone air purifiers with HEPA filters for their classrooms," he said.

Copeman says Quebec should be following Ontario's example by invoking the highest possible mitigation measures, which include supplying all school personnel with N95 masks. 

Public Health Director Luc Boileau said last week that N95 masks were reserved for "specialized schools" and were not necessary in all facilities.

Montreal assures parents school is safe

While CO2 readers can help identify air quality issues in classrooms, experts say they won't solve them. 

"You would need some sort of air filter or device that circulates the air or some process to circulate the air in the classrooms so that you don't have the same people breathing the same kind of stagnant air for a long period of time," said Dr. Christopher Labos, a Montreal epidemiologist and cardiologist.

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

In conjunction with better air quality, Labos says it's important that all teachers and students are vaccinated and that everyone wears their mask properly. Ideally, he says, both teachers and students would be equipped with N95 masks.

Montreal Public Health sent a letter to parents over the weekend reassuring them that it will do everything it can to support schools and limit transmission of the virus. 

"We must take into account that this variant is less virulent and that vaccination offers excellent protection against more severe forms of the illness" said Public Health Director Dr. Mylène Drouin, adding that the best way to protect the school community and beyond is through vaccination. 

With files from Kwabena Oduro, The Canadian Press


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