Students returned to schools this week despite record high numbers of COVID-19 infections, an extended shutdown for all non-essential businesses and services, and the imposition of a province-wide curfew aimed at quelling the rampant spread of the virus. The decision to return students to class was met with both relief and concern on the part of parents now torn between wanting a return to routine for their children and safeguarding their households against infection.
“There will be parents who choose to keep their kids home,” says New Frontiers School Board director general Rob Buttars, acknowledging that many feel it is simply not safe to be allowing children to gather once again in schools. For students registered in the public education system there is no legal choice, as the Quebec government, in a break from neighbouring Ontario (which pushed back a return to class out of concern for the safety of students), has opted to insist on in-person classes over online learning. “I’m really concerned that Quebec and Ontario have different standards,” Buttars admits, while lamenting the lack of consultation that went into such a decision. “We received messaging 30 minutes before the press conference,” he explains, of the Friday morning briefing by Education Minister Jean-François Roberge that confirmed Quebec’s stance on a return to class. “This makes it hard for us.”
Buttars is happy the kids will be back and admits that after a week of online learning at the elementary level, it is clear the classroom is a better environment for most children. “We can handle it,” he says with confidence, pointing out that the government did make some moves to ease some of the stress. Most notably, teachers will now be bumped up on the priority list for vaccinations, all ministry exams have been cancelled, the issuing of report cards has been delayed to February, and marks from the fall semester will be of less importance. At the elementary school level, students in Grades 5 and 6 will now wear masks in the classroom, and all grade levels will be expected to wear a mask in common areas such as corridors and buses (excluding pre-school students). At the secondary level, upon their return to school on Jan. 18 students and staff will now have to wear disposable masks, which the government will be providing (two per day).
“We will also have to continue to monitor air quality,” says Buttars, promising that classrooms will be aired out as needed. “It is helpful to not be dealing with extreme cold weather, and there does not seem to be any on the immediate horizon,” he continues, noting teachers can open classroom windows. The NFSB does not plan to install costly ventilation systems as some of the larger school boards in Montreal have done.
“We will continue to monitor cases and hope people are more prudent,” Buttars says, adding that the NFSB and its schools will also be communicating with parents and that he hopes they can count on the same level of support received from the community in the fall. Essentially, parents are asked to keep their children home if they have any symptoms, to communicate the results of tests to their school, and to be understanding of how quickly things may change as the term progresses.