The Quebec government announced on Monday that elementary and secondary students would no longer be required to wear procedural masks while seated upon returning to the classroom following March break. Health Minister Christian Dubé confirmed in a brief press release that the “situation is improving, and this is also reflected in the school environment.” During a press conference on Tuesday, Quebec’s interim director of Public Health, Dr. Luc Boileau, explained that from a public health perspective, the benefits of removing the masks at this stage outweigh the risk. He said experts had factored in the relatively high vaccination rates amongst students in making their recommendation, as well as the results of a study by researchers at the St-Justine Hospital and Université Laval that concluded around three million Quebecers had been infected with the Omicron variant as of Jan. 31, including 35 to 40 per cent of school age children. Boileau admitted the loosening of the mask mandate represented a calculated risk, but insisted the available data indicates the hospitalization risk for children is very low. He explained the masks impacted the ability of students to socialize and visually interact with others’ faces. He also highlighted the potential impact on students with different learning difficulties, all while downplaying the risks associated with removing masks so soon after students return from March break. “There are mixed reactions,” says New Frontiers School Board director general Rob Buttars, who is pleased the break will allow the school community time to come to terms with the decision. “I think everybody is concerned about the speed of it,” he says, suggesting that while the number of cases within the school is fairly low and on a downward trend, people are nervous about loosening measures so quickly. Buttars says there is also a concern that staff members and families will be travelling over the March break, and that this may contribute to an increase in cases when students return. “March break has come at a good time for people to rest,” he says, adding he hopes people will be careful while they are away. Buttars is also confident the school community will continue to act responsibly when classes resume by keeping children home if symptomatic and reporting any positive cases that develop. As of February 22, the global absenteeism rate for all NFSB schools and centres was 3.1 per cent. At the elementary level, 2.1 per cent of students were absent because they were isolating due to direct contact with the virus, while 1.3 per cent were absent due to a positive test result. At the high school level, 1.7 per cent of students were isolating or waiting on results from a test, while 1.6 per cent had tested positive. A total of six staff members were absent due to the virus, with three confirmed cases among them. The statistics from the NFSB are slightly higher than the average absenteeism rate across the province of 1.72 per cent of students who are isolating or recovering from the virus. In all cases however, there are more students absent from Quebec schools for reasons unrelated to COVID-19. End of NFSB vaccination campaign The vaccination campaign for children between the age of 5 and 11 in NFSB schools came to an end on Feb. 24, with just under 300 students having received a second dose of the pediatric vaccine. The campaign, which saw mobile vaccination clinics take place at Valley schools throughout the month of February, was organized in collaboration with the Montérégie-West Integrated Health and Social Services Centre (CISSSMO). “We think it is a success,” says Buttars, who suggests many students were vaccinated outside of the school-run campaign as well. Local statistics Currently, 60.2 per cent of children between the ages of 5 and 11 in the Haut-Saint-Laurent have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while 37.1 are now considered adequately vaccinated with two doses. Across the general population, almost 85 per cent have received a first dose, while 76.7 per cent are double vaccinated. Only 46.5 per cent of the population have received a third or booster shot. There are eight patients with COVID-19 being treated at the Barrie Memorial Hospital in Ormstown. The Anna Laberge Hospital in Chateauguay currently has 38 patients admitted with a positive diagnosis, while the Suroît Hospital has 30 patients, including one requiring intensive care. According to the Institut National de Santé Publique du Québec, at least 59 people tested positive in the last 24 hours in the Haut-Saint-Laurent local health network (LHN). An additional 141 positive cases were recorded in the Suroît LHN, while the Vaudreuil-Soulanges LHN reported 297 cases, and the Jardins Roussillon LHN saw 409 new cases diagnosed. These numbers likely represent an underrepresentation of the virus’ spread within the region due to limited access to PCR testing and the use of rapid test kits. Despite this, the rate of infection in the Haut-Saint-Laurent remains the highest in the Montérégie region at 235.5 per 100,000 individuals.