Back to school in western Quebec, with precautions
Some parents admit to feeling anxious as children flock back to class
Elementary schools reopened in much of Quebec Monday, but students will notice some significant changes to their routine as administrators try to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Everything from how students line up to where they sit and what they can do at recess needs to change because of COVID-19, school officials say.
"What we've been doing is setting up a new school," said Simon Leclair, principal of Ėcole de la Forêt, a French elementary school in Gatineau, Que.
"[It's a] completely different way to do things."
Quebec requires students stay two metres apart at all times and, where possible, limits the number of students in each classroom to a maximum of 15.
While the province has issued guidelines for physical distancing and proper hygiene, it's up to individual schools to figure out how to do that in practice.
Signs and tape
It's a project that's required a rethinking of almost every aspect of the school day.
At Ėcole de la Forêt, students will arrive to see signs around the schoolyard telling them to stay two metres away from their peers. Which door they use will depend on their grade.
Inside the classroom, desks are spaced apart from each other and each student's personal space is marked on the floor with tape.
Leclair said students won't be allowed to share writing utensils and books.
Teachers will use whiteboards to provide instruction as much as possible, Leclair said, as a way to cut back on passing around of papers.
Recess periods will be staggered to limit the number of students in the schoolyard.
"We're not actually that worried because, the kids, they learn really quickly and they've been taught as well with their parents to be careful," said Leclair.
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Parents anxious but ready
Rico Lavoie watched his two kids, Flavie, 10, and Simon-Olivier, 12, board the school bus Monday morning.
"I was happy for them because I think it's important they get back to a normal life, they see their friends and have a routine that they can get used to," he said. "I think overall, it's what's best for them."
With relatively few active cases in the region, Lavoie said it wasn't a difficult decision to send his children back to school.
"I think there's very little risk and a lot of upside for them," he said.
Marie-Michelle Gauthier was more trepidatious about sending her nine-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, back to her Grade 3 class.
"I can't lie, I think I'm a bit anxious. I hope everything will go well. There's a bit of anxiety knowing, am I making the good choice if she gets sick? Then I'm going to have that on me, so I'm going to feel really, really bad."
Gauthier said communicating with the school and her daughter's teacher has helped ease some of her concerns, but she still plans to take the situation day-by-day.
"Tonight's going to be a big discussion to see how it went and how it's going," she said.
Planning every detail
Eldon Keon, principal of Gatineau's English Lord Aylmer School, said administrators and teachers at his school have tried to plan out every detail and anticipate the risks of every possible scenario.
Its common areas including the gym and libraries have been blocked off. Any activities that require sharing materials are forbidden.
Instead, students will be given their own jump ropes and arts supplies — all of which will be sanitized before every use.
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"Rethinking [school] for reducing the risk of the spread of COVID-19 has really put everyone to the test," said Keon.
Class sizes at Lord Aylmer will be limited to seven students, Keon said, which is possible because only 13 per cent or less than 100 of the school's 685 students have registered their intent to return.
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Keon said during the first week back there will be two teachers in every class. One will teach and the other will make sure students are following physical distancing rules.
"There will be a learning process," said Keon. "As children start learning different ways of being together, I think it'll be a lot easier."
The Quebec government's decision to open up schools faster than many other provinces received some criticism. Critics argued the province — which has the most COVID-19 deaths in the country — was moving too fast.
But both Keon and Leclair said they are hopeful the procedures they've developed will be enough to keep students safe and offer much-needed relief for parents.
Older students won't be back inside schools until the next school year. Ontario's schools are closed until the end of May.
With files from Kimberley Molina