English schools want flexibility about when to reopen, but Quebec government says no
'The minister of education is not the boss of the council of commissioners,' QESBA says
Premier Francois Legault's government says English school boards in the province do not have the power to delay opening their elementary schools, despite concerns that resources won't be in place to ensure the safe return of students amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government's position sets up a potential clash with the Quebec English School Boards Association, which maintains individual school boards can decide how many schools will open on the two dates set by Minister Jean-François Roberge for the resumption of classes — May 11 for schools in Quebec's regions and May 19 for schools in the greater Montreal area.
The association says it can't guarantee that transportation or teaching staff will be organized by those dates, nor is it clear enough parents will be willing to send their students back into the classroom, said Noel Burke, the association vice-president.
Elementary schools will also have to respect a number of public health guidelines when they reopen, including limiting classrooms to 15 students and keeping students two metres apart.
Given the complexity of these issues, Burke said, it's possible not every English elementary school will be ready to open its doors on the days laid down by the government.
The elected school commissioners, he said, have the authority to inform the government how many schools will be opening.
"Under the Education Act, we have an obligation to provide a safe and secure environment. If the environment is not safe and secure we won't do it," Burke said.
"So there is not only a legal position. There is a moral obligation to act in the best interests of the public."
He added that elected school commissioners — positions that no longer exist in French school boards following controversial reforms passed in February — are independent of the government.
"They're publicly elected officials that act in the best interests of the community," Burke said. "We're not trying to start a conflict here, but the minister of education is not the boss of the council of commissioners.
Quebec government claims exclusive power
The provincial government, however, outright rejects the idea that English school boards can establish their own timelines for schools to reopen.
"The English school boards do not have the legal power to push back the opening of schools. That is the exclusive jurisdiction of the government of Quebec," a spokesperson for the education minister said in a statement.
The statement added that the ministry's decision to reopen elementary schools was backed by an association of pediatricians, who worry the extended periods of confinement will damage the educational development of children.
English schools boards, however, are not alone in seeking more flexibility from the Education Ministry.
A province-wide group of school administrators — the Fédération Québécoise des Directions d'établissement d'enseignement — also said it had asked Roberge to allow elementary schools some leeway when determining if they're ready to open.
"We asked twice last week. The answer was no," said Nicolas Prévost, the federation's president, adding his group will remain in contact with Roberge's office.
"We really hope that if some schools were really not ready, that the ministry would give us that latitude. We wouldn't want to start if we couldn't guarantee the security of the personnel and students."
Higher than expected enrolment
So far, said Prévost, around 60 per cent of parents have indicated they intend to send their children back to school when they reopen.
While that figure is higher than Prévost's federation was expecting, he also said it is lower in English schools and in those parts of Montreal where the virus is still spreading widely, such as Montreal North.
Under the ministry's timeline, teachers are supposed to return to schools on Monday to begin preparing for the return of students.
Late last week, the largest school board in the province — the Commission scolaire de Montréal — postponed its teachers' return, owing to the current situation in the city. Teachers will continue working from home this week, the school board said in a statement.
Legault's government has said it will only proceed with its timeline for reopening elementary schools if the public health situation is safe enough.
While transmission rates have dropped significantly in Quebec's outlying regions, they remain high in Montreal and the surrounding suburbs.
In an legislative hearing on Friday, Health Minister Danielle McCann acknowledged that the current situation in Montreal would have to improve for the government to stick to its plan to lift several confinement measures on May 19.
With files from Matt D'Amours