According to Quebec Premier Francois Legault, if the situation with COVID-19 remains stable, the government intends to reopen elementary schools and daycares off the island of Montreal on May 11 and do the same for Montreal on May 19.
High schools, Cegeps and universities will remain closed until the fall.
Legault said the decision was based on five factors: the well-being of the kids, especially those with learning disabilities; the belief that the risk is limited; the situation is under control in hospitals so in the event of an outbreak the health care system would be prepared; the public health department gave the green light, and finally, because life must go on.
Since a vaccine could be 12-18 months away, Legault said if the students were sent back to school in September, the situation wouldn’t be any different than it is now.
Beyond the announcement, there were few details made available about the logistics of the plan to reopen elementary schools.
According to Legault, attendance is voluntary. If parents are concerned, they are not obligated to send their kids to school. Students with an underlying health condition should be kept at home, he added. The same goes for teachers over 60 or those with health issues.
To maintain social distancing measures, class sizes will be limited to 15 students.
In daycares, the educator to child ratio will drop to half what is normally is, to a maximum of 30 per cent capacity for the facility as a whole.
Following Legault’s daily briefing, Minister of Education and Higher Learning Jean-François Roberge held a press conference with more details about the plan.
When asked about the safety of bus drivers, around half of which are in the 60-year-old age range, Roberge said a physical barrier would be put in place in busses to ensure their safety.
While it was recommended for daycare educators to wear personal protective equipment, Roberge said there was no recommendation for teachers to require masks.
Roberge made it clear during the press conference that even though it is only daycares and elementary schools opening on May 11, teaching is expected to continue.
“Teachers are not on break, and neither are their students,” Roberge said. Every child between 6 and 16 years of age in Quebec is required to be in school. They have to continue, and parents have to help, Roberge said.
How that learning would be evaluated was not clearly explained.
Adult education is more flexible, according to Roberge. Whenever possible, work can be done online. For vocational studies where hands on experience is required for technical skills, there is the possibility of holding sessions in small groups.
Roberge said as of May 4, daycare services will be available to teachers in preparation for the return of students. Teachers will also have access to resources and training for distance teaching. Upon the invitation of schools, parents will also be able to go to schools to collect their children’s learning materials, and additional tools for remote learning will be made available including devices and tablets with internet capabilities.
Roberge said parents should contact schools a week in advance if they intend to send their child to school.
Within a week, elementary schools across the province will in theory get a ballpark figure of the number of kids headed back to class, and then cross reference that with the teachers who are able to return, while also fitting busses for protective barriers and restructuring transportation to avoid crowded busses.
When asked about the expected rate of return to school would be, Roberge said he doubted more that 50 per cent of students would return to school.
When asked if the province had a projection of how many staff and students could contract COVID-19, Public Health Strategic Advisor Richard Massé said the only figures available were based on international infection rates. The projection was up to 5 per cent in hot zones and around 1 per cent in cold zones.
According to Eastern Townships School Board Chairman Michael Murray, the board heard the plan at the same time as the rest of the population. The ETSB was not in any way consulted about the potential reopening of schools, Murray said.
While too soon to comment without a clear understanding of the plan, Murray did say a lot of adjustments will have to be made to accommodate the government’s directive.
“One of the big issues for personnel is the fact that they have families at home. Some have members who could be in vulnerable categories, all those factors play into an individual’s decision,” Murray said.
Appalachian Teachers’ Association President Megan Seline said the union’s priority is the health and safety of teachers, but could not comment further. The ATA needs more precise information about the logistics of re-entry, Seline said.
The ETSB’s monthly council of commissioners meeting will be held this evening at 7 p.m. via video conferencing.