Back to 'normal' for Quebec elementary and high school students in fall, if vaccination goes as planned

Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge says as long as 75 per cent of 12 to 17-year-olds are vaccinated by September, they will be returning to school in person and without masks.

45 per cent of 12-to-17-year-olds received first dose or took appointment, minister says

Children outside a school in Montreal. Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge has announced a 'normal' return to class in September. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Elementary and high school students will be able to return to classrooms without masks or bubbles if 75 per cent of 12- to 17-year-olds are vaccinated and if cases remain stable, says Education Minister Jean-François Roberge. 

Roberge made the announcement alongside Isabelle Charest, the junior education minister, and with Quebec Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda, at a news conference Wednesday morning. 

Students will have to wash their hands regularly but physical distancing measures will no longer be required. 

Still, schools will have to be ready to pivot back to online learning in case of any COVID-19 outbreaks, Roberge said. 

"Today is a great day because I'm announcing a return to normal for all the students in Quebec," Roberge said. "The current situation gives us this leeway."

This "normal" back-to-school plan depends on the widespread vaccination of 12- to 17-year-olds over the summer and on daily case counts continuing to decrease, he said.

He said more than 45 per cent of that age group has already had a first dose or taken an appointment, which he called "encouraging," but Roberged urged parents to take appointments for children who haven't had theirs.

On Monday, Higher Education Minister Danielle McCann announced a similar plan for CEGEPs and universities.

This week, Quebec's daily case counts have dipped below 250 for the first time since last September. 

Roberge said he will see how well the vaccination campaign is going between now and August, and provide an update to parents. 

Maintenance and disinfecting work in school is expected to take place over the summer months. Work will also be done to improve classroom ventilation and machines measuring the the levels of carbon dioxide will be installed, the minister said.

Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said Wednesday was a 'great day' because he was announcing a possible return to normality for students in September. (Radio-Canada)

No Plan B announced — for now

Roberge said the plan will have to be adjusted if a large number of teens aren't vaccinated by September, but didn't say how it could change.

"This is really a non-plan," said Heidi Yetman, the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, which represents 8,000 English-language teachers.

"To throw out this idea that we're all going back to normal in the fall, but there are conditions, is worrisome. I think we should be leaning toward caution."

Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital, pointed out that no vaccines are being used on children under 12 in Canada and Quebec. 

"So we still have to prevent transmission between children in the class and — even if they don't get sick — passing it on to adults, parents and grandparents, at home," Oughton said, adding measures should remain in place for elementary school children until they can be safely vaccinated. 

Last month, the Quebec government opened vaccination to teens with the aim of having most of them vaccinated over the summer. 

Christina Cronin, a student at Westmount High School, says she would like to see a more gradual return to classrooms next September. (CBC)

Christina Cronin is in secondary 4 at Westmount High School. She said she's hesitant about going back to school full-time, so soon after the third wave. 

"I think it'll be a lot more stress next year, and a lot harder for people to get into the groove of doing it all the time," Cronin said. 

She said she'd rather the government had found a way to gradually ease into a return to normality at school, especially because of how difficult the pandemic made it for students to keep up with school work. 

Westmount High School student Amare Kysela says he felt isolated when his class had to do school from home. (CBC)

Another Westmount High School student, Amare Kysela, said he was excited by the idea of a more normal school year. 

"I think people need to be in school more and it's affecting me a lot. I feel like I haven't been able to see my friends. I feel like I've been isolated at home," Kysela said.

With files from Chloe Ranaldi