Quebec's partial reopening of schools this spring gets passing grade

Now that Quebec has announced that all schools will reopen in the fall and that all students will be back in the classroom, teachers and parents are reflecting on some of the lessons learned this spring.

Teachers and parents still have questions about Quebec's decision to send every child back in fall

Shanna Bernier decided to send her daughter Beatrice back to Grade 1 when Sherbrooke Elementary School in the Eastern Townships reopened in May. (Submitted by Shanna Bernier)

Shanna Bernier chuckles a bit when she says sending her child back to school in the middle of a worldwide pandemic was, overall, a positive experience.

"I would chalk that up to magnificent resilience and creativity in our educators and not because there was a great plan," she said.

"I just hope that over the summer there's some really solid planning and thoughtfulness that goes into the return in September.''

Bernier, who lives in Sherbrooke, was given the option of sending her daughter Beatrice back to Grade 1 when primary schools outside Montreal reopened.

Bernier and her husband were both working at home under lockdown, so they didn't have to send her back to class. But they could see she missed school.

"She's a very social child, and it wasn't benefiting her to be alone at home with her four-year-old sister."

When the school bells rang on May 11, teachers had been at work for two weeks, reconfiguring classrooms so children and staff were always at a two-metre distance. Lockers and playground equipment were off-limits. School cafeterias and gyms remained closed. Hand sanitizing stations were installed. Class sizes were capped at 15.

High school students never got to return to the classroom. From March through June, their only option was online.

Now that Quebec has announced that all schools will reopen in the fall and that all students will be back in the classroom, teachers and parents are reflecting on some of the lessons learned this spring.

School wasn't the same

Once Beatrice was back, they quickly realized that the social nature of school had changed. Beatrice's Grade 1 class at Sherbrooke Elementary School had been divided in two and her best friends were in the other group, with whom she couldn't mingle at all.

Bernier worries it will be more of the same this fall. Quebec has announced a new "bubble" system for primary classrooms, where four to six students will have their desks grouped together. Kids will be allowed to interact freely within their bubbles without limits.

But they'll have to keep a metre away from students in other bubbles and two metres away from their teacher. And they won't mix with students from other classes.

Bernier wonders how that will work. "I imagine that will be up to the discretion of the teachers to create those bubbles, but then you're kind of creating an artificial social structure in your classroom."

It will be tough for teachers to change the dynamic if students don't get along or talk too much if the groups are locked in from day one, Bernier says.

Jesse Greener’s six-year-old twins didn’t return to school in Quebec City when it reopened in May. Here, they take part in an online class with the other kindergarten students who stayed home. (Submitted by Jesse Greener)

Jesse Greener's twins attend École Anne-Hébert in Quebec City. He and his partner decided to keep them home from kindergarten this spring.

Greener's children have had 20- to 30-minute online sessions up to four times a week with their teacher and the other kindergarten students who stayed home. He would have preferred more.

"They're six years old, they're learning every day. But it's nice for them to be able to just see their friends.''

The concern about getting enough exposure to other students and teachers could be top of mind this fall, if classes go back online because of the pandemic. Greener will be watching closely. "We're all concerned that there's going to be a second wave. We'll be very sensitive to any changes to the number of cases in Quebec… and we would pull them out right away."

Challenges for high school students, at home and online

Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge issued a warning to high school students in May — even though they weren't returning to the classroom, they were expected to keep up with their schoolwork via online classes.

For Lisa Silver, an English Language Arts teacher at Golden Valley School in Val-d'Or in Quebec's Abitibi-Temiscamingue region, the online experience has been a challenge.

Some of her students were immediately at a disadvantage, because they didn't have a computer at home. Many have spotty internet. Sometimes, to save bandwidth, students turned their cameras off in the middle of class.

"It's hard to gauge what your students are doing or what your classmates are feeling if you're just seeing a black screen with their name on it.''

Lisa Silver, an English Language Arts teacher in Val-d’Or, says access to technology for all is needed to ensure every student can benefit from online learning. (Submitted by Lisa Silver)

Under the government's plan for the fall, Secondary 1, 2 and 3 students will be grouped together. Secondary 4 and 5 students, who would normally change classrooms, will either stay in one place, with teachers moving, or alternate days at school with days of online classes.

Silver says if classes continue online, there needs to be a level playing field.

"Thank God we have technology but I want to make sure there's equity in that technology. I want my kids to succeed. I worry about them."

When COVID comes to school

When Quebec announced the decision to open schools this fall, the government said it was based on the fact that transmission of the virus was very limited in schools, and it was well-controlled with distancing measures.

The Education Ministry has not released comprehensive data on the total number of COVID-19 cases in schools since the reopening. In a statement to the CBC, a spokesperson confirmed there were 22 active cases in primary schools around the province on June 12.

Most regional public health authorities contacted by the CBC couldn't provide school-specific data, but did confirm there had been few or no cases in schools and when there were cases, they were quickly controlled.

Mauricie-Centre du Québec is among the regions hardest-hit by the pandemic outside of Greater Montreal. The region's head of public health, Dr. Marie-Josée Godi, says there were about 40 cases among students, and that four schools were affected.

One outbreak, at École Louis-de-France in Trois-Rivières, involved 11 positive cases in one class, which was shut down for 14 days.

Dr. Marie-Josée Godi, director of public health for the Mauricie-Centre du Québec, says authorities were successful in containing the outbreaks of COVID-19 in four schools in the region. (CIUSSS de la Mauricie-Centre du Québec)

Godi says the channels her department put in place before schools opened helped them step in when a case of COVID-19 was declared.

Any child showing symptoms was sent home and tested. A positive result meant the child was isolated for 14 days and Public Health did contact tracing for the two weeks previous. Anyone who had unprotected contact at a distance of under 2 metres with the infected child was put in preventive isolation for 14 days.

In green-lighting the return to school this fall, Dr. Richard Massé, a scientific advisor to the Public Health director, underlined a key hypothesis in the scientific literature around COVID-19. "Kids don't transmit one to the other and they don't transmit efficiently from youngsters to adults.''

Godi says the back-to-school experience in the Mauricie region seems to back that finding. "Most of the cases in schools were actually acquired outside school. And when we did our contact tracing, even when there were many people identified as possible secondary cases, there were very few infections.''

That, she says, should be reassuring for the parents who'll be sending their children back to school in September.

Teachers want a clear plan

This week, as they clean up their classrooms and store materials for the summer, teachers are wondering what the re-entry this fall will look like.

Heidi Yetman, the head of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT), says educators have earned their summer break.

"Teachers are finding this very difficult in the classroom - trying to do social distancing, making sure they wash their hands. It's a lot of added stress.''

For Yetman, any plan for a full return in the fall has to include an acknowledgement of the toll COVID-19 has taken on everyone.

'It's something we've put to the government, to think about social, emotional learning as well, and I'm hoping they're going to take that into consideration. But when you look through whatever they're discussing about the opening of schools, it's very rarely mentioned.''

A boy hugs his mother before returning to class in Saint-Sauveur, Que., on May 11, the day schools outside Montreal reopened. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Yetman says for the most part, students didn't learn anything new in the spring. Those who did will have to review it come fall, when their peers who never returned to school or did their online courses start back.

Gillian O'Rourke-Garrett, a Grade 1 teacher at Shigawake-Port Daniel School on the Gaspé coast, says teachers have been asking for clear directives, especially an emergency plan in the event of a second wave of the pandemic. She worries that the government will rely on them to figure things out for themselves.

"I'm not sure when Minister Roberge thinks teachers will have time to do that, unless of course it's factoring in them working during their summer holidays, which is not a fair thing to expect.''


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