'Just keep swimming': How students and teachers in Quebec kept schools open despite the pandemic
Educators in the province rallied to save the school year from potentially devastating closures
When the Quebec government decided it would take the calculated risk of keeping classrooms open this school year, many teachers were skeptical about how long the commitment would last.
Sure enough, cases and hospitalizations began to rise sharply across the province by October.
"We all felt that we were heading into a wall and that schools were definitely going to close," recalled Shawn Richardson, a Grade 7 English teacher at École secondaire Henri-Bourassa, a French high school in Montreal.
But the government held the line, even though it wasn't always pretty.
The ministry's safety protocols often changed abruptly, further frustrating teachers. At other times, ministry officials were reluctant to adapt to the evolving science of transmission.
There were periods of extended closures around Christmas, when hospitals were swamped with COVID-19 patients, and in several regions this spring, when variants sparked a third wave.
And, of course, thousands of classrooms were shut down and forced online, because of localized outbreaks.
Yet, when summer break begins this week, most Quebec students will have spent more time in class than students in other COVID hot spots, such as Ontario and New York state.
It is an achievement, experts say, that could have long-term benefits for children's cognitive development, health and income.
Getting to this point, though, required a historic effort by the province's teachers, assisted by support and administrative staff.
Teachers who spoke with CBC News last week described feeling exhausted after a year of simultaneously trying to teach and manage the health threat to their students and themselves.
But they also expressed a sense of accomplishment at having delivered a basic human right, childhood education, despite the formidable obstacles in their way.
"We feel proud that we got through the year, and of having taken part in the calculated risk of keeping schools open," said Janie Larivière, an elementary school teacher at École St-Paul in the Eastern Townships.
How to teach in a pandemic
Teaching in the pandemic significantly increased the already heavy workload of educators in the province.
At the start of the year, they had to figure out how to make children comply with a dizzying array of public health measures.
Willingdon Elementary School in Montreal, for instance, created seven different entrances for its students in order to keep class bubbles separate from each other.
Each bubble was assigned an animal, like a beaver. Students were told to follow signs of their animal until they reached their desk.
"It was amazing. The kids have followed all of these crazy rules and showed us how incredibly resilient they are," said Kathleen Usher, a science teacher at Willingdon.
More taxing for teachers, though, was dealing with the technological challenges associated with online learning.
Teachers were required to prepare material for students who were in quarantine, or switch completely to online learning in the event of an outbreak.
In much of the province, students in Grades 9, 10 and 11 spent every other school day learning online.
"We had to completely revise how we planned a lesson," said Line Giguère, an elementary school teacher in the Beauce area, south of Quebec City.
"We had to rethink what examples we used and how students interacted with the material. We had to re-explain things often."
The proliferation of internet technology, like Google chats and Microsoft Teams, in the classroom also altered students' expectations of their teacher's availability.
"They could reach us night and day by sending us messages," said Sabrina Jafralie, who heads the ethics and religion department at Westmount High School.
"At some point we, the teachers, had to put our foot down and say, 'OK, we're not emailing you back at seven p.m.'"
The teachers who spoke with CBC News said, ultimately, online learning was a poor substitute for being in the classroom.
"They're not motivated as much," Richardson said of his students. "They show up in pyjamas and they don't want to work."
By altering their teaching methods, in some cases paring the curriculum down to the essentials, and making the most of the in-class periods, teachers were nevertheless able to get through much of their material.
"We worked hard to make our teaching more efficient," said Giguère.
Meera Pande, a Grade 11 student at St. Thomas High School in Montreal, said she feels well-prepared as she heads into CEGEP, Quebec's junior college system, next year.
What helped, she said, was the solidarity that developed among classmates. Her online class chats were often filled with the encouraging messages students sent to each other.
"I know there were a lot of questions about keeping schools open but I personally think the system was the absolute best possible, given the circumstances," she said.
At what cost?
Keeping schools open did, however, have consequences for the rest of Quebec society's exposure to COVID-19.
More than 50,000 cases have been detected among students and staff since September. Of the 2,740 elementary and secondary schools in the province, only 154 haven't registered at least one case in the last six months.
"I would say that children were an important part of the community cases that were identified in Quebec," said Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital.
"Even though children, generally speaking, tend to not get very sick, that doesn't preclude them from being vectors of transmission for others."
Oughton was among several specialists who were dismayed at Quebec's initial reluctance this fall to require students to wear masks in class.
The Education Ministry has also been slow to align its safety protocols with the evolving scientific consensus on transmission by aerosols.
Education Minister Jean-François Roberge discouraged schools from installing air purifiers, which baffled some public health experts. Keeping schools open, Roberge has said repeatedly, requires accepting "calculated risks."
Many English and private schools — which have more autonomy than French public schools — installed air filtration equipment anyway.
"At least someone took action to help protect us. We felt nobody else was doing anything to protect us at all," said Usher.
Just keep swimming
Despite all these challenges, there is a widespread belief in the province that the benefits of keeping schools open far outweighed the downsides.
Catherine Haeck, an economist who specializes in education, said extended school closures affect not only a parent's ability to work, and hence family income, but a child's life-long earning potential as well.
"And there is a bigger impact on children from underprivileged backgrounds," Haeck added, noting they have fewer resources available to help them catch up to their peers.
Tina Montreuil, who heads a child psychology research unit at McGill University, said the socialization that happens at school is critical for the cognitive development of children, especially adolescents.
"That's how adolescents develop a sense of self," Montreuil said. "They internalize social norms; what is permitted and what is not."
Principals at several Montreal elementary schools shared student artwork with CBC News to illustrate how their students experienced the past year.
Many students at St. Charles Elementary drew computer screens, bottles of hand sanitizer and representations of physical distancing instructions.
At St. John Fisher Junior Elementary, students' dreams of the future seemed shaped by the pandemic. One child dreamed of becoming a YouTube star, another of being able to play with all her friends.
"Some people got sick. Nurses are making them get better," said Nathan Lessard, 6, explaining his "I have a dream" picture.
"Our focus was not COVID, it was 'let's do this.' The focus was trying to keep things as normal as possible," said Lara Belinsky, a vice-principal at Willingdon.
One student poster in her school features the word "perseverance." Underneath a fish says, "Just keep swimming," words of encouragement from the animated movie Finding Nemo.
But in order to keep their students afloat, teachers had to draw deep from their own emotional and physical reserves.
Jafralie said she learned, over the last several months, just how far teachers are willing to go for their students.
She added: "That can be a bad thing, too, because we do it at the expense of ourselves."
After a year of relentless stress and constant vigilance, Larivière said she has only one plan for her summer vacation.
"I don't feel like making any decisions," she said. "We'll probably eat hamburgers every night. My brain needs to recuperate."
- An earlier version of this story stated there have been more than 25,500 cases in Quebec schools since September. The Health Ministry later clarified that figure only refers to cases since January. There have been 50,021 cases in Quebec schools since September.Jun 22, 2021 4:43 PM ET
With files from Isaac Olson