COVID-19 update – Back-to-school; planning for a second wave


QUÉBEC – Over the last few weeks, the provincial government has continued
de-confinement measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. A more detailed back-to-school plan was announced on August 10 and a plan for a potential second wave on August 18.
Back to School
The draft plan announced in June remains mostly the same except for a few changes: masks are mandatory for students 10 years old and older (Grade 5 and up) in common areas and on buses, but not in classrooms (parents must supply);
students within the same class don’t have to social distance but must maintain a one meter distance from students in other groups; and distance learning is an option for students with health conditions or those who live with vulnerable family members, providing they have a doctor’s note.
Teachers will move between classrooms while each class will remain in place except for subjects like music and physical education.
In Secondary IV and V, schools are able to offer a mix of on-site and distance learning if schedules can’t be organized to maintain stable groups; 50% in-school learning is required. However, according to Mike Dubeau, director of the Western Quebec School Board, through working with the schools, they were able to organize classes so students can be on site 100% of the time. The CSSHBO (Centre de services scolaire des Haut-Bois-de-l’Outaouais) has done the same.
Whenever possible, students and staff will have to stay two metres apart, except for preschool where physical distancing will not be required between students and teachers. However, personal protective equipment will be mandatory for preschool teachers. In the classroom, staff members at other levels of education are not required to wear masks if they remain 2 metres away from students.
CEGEP and university students will do a mix of in-school and online learning.
Procedures for students with symptoms
If a student shows symptoms while in class, they are automatically isolated and a single staff member cares for them while waiting for the parent; all are equipped with PPE. If a student tests positive, anyone considered to be at moderate to high risk is removed from the school and tested.
In all cases when a student shows symptoms or tests positive, the parent must call the COVID hotline and follow all public health directives, including isolation measures.All parents will be informed if a student within the school tests positive for COVID, and plans will be in place for a seamless transition to distance learning if a classroom or school has to be temporarily closed; students not at school will be provided with pedagogical support.
In the event of several cases of COVID-19 in the same class or if the outbreak involves several classes, regional public health authorities provide the school
with detailed instructions, including recommendations as to whether a classroom or school should be closed.
With buses limited to two people per seat (preferably from the same family) and the first row unused if a protective barrier behind the driver isn’t installed, those registered in adult education will not be offered transportation this year.
“In the past, if there was room, adult ed students could use the bus, but now with COVID and a max of 44 people per bus, we are very tight on busing,” said Dubeau, noting the decision will be revaluated as the pandemic evolves.
For the CSSHBO, it will be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the amount of room on each bus.
A word from the school boards
Although Dubeau is confident the board will be prepared to welcome students starting August 27, he has a number of concerns, starting with the safety of students and staff: staffing (some teachers are exempt from returning during a shortage period); communication (confusion when parents hear news from Ontario where procedures are different); and the long-term mental health impacts from living in a stressful time. “The return in May gave us an idea of what’s to come so we got a head start on the planning phase and training staff,” he said.
Dubeau said schools decide whether to implement staggered re-entry dates or break/lunch hours. “Some of our schools have over 400 students while some have around 35. The decisions will be based on their local context,” he added.
School boards have until September 15 to submit their emergency plans to the government. A lack of internet service is one major obstacle that will have to be overcome in the event of a shutdown. “There are a lot of dead zones in the Pontiac or places with really poor access, but there’s no quick answer because it’s an infrastructure problem. It will be up to the schools to find alternative means to reach students,” Dubeau told the Journal. These can include mail outs, phone calls, directing students to public locations with internet access, or possibly allowing a limited number of students in the school.
The CSSHBO is implementing a gradual reentry in its elementary schools, starting August 31 with grades 1 and 2. “We made this decision out of concern for the smooth running of the school to accommodate 100% of its students. Despite the resumption of elementary school last spring, only 30% of the students attended,” said the organization in a statement. High school starts back August 31.
CSSHBO Director Denis Rossignol said the plan for returning to school has been thoroughly analyzed and thought out to ensure everyone’s safety. “The schools and staff are ready. The message we have to remember is that we’re going to have a great start to the school year. Parents can send their children to school without fear,” he said.
At École secondaire Sieur-de-Coulonge, logistics, limiting travel and organization are being prioritized. “We’re working to ensure students move around the school as little as possible. Apart from special classes, we want to form a kind of bubble to
protect everyone,” explained Rossignol. Students were invited to an information meeting on August 26 about the start of the new school year.
Government funding
Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced on August 17 that $20 million will be invested in three measures to help students catch up and cope with lost school time due to the pandemic: hire an additional 350 teachers and tutors to coordinate catch-up courses and help students with homework; fast-track students with special needs
into necessary programs; and launch a major advertising campaign to encourage students to pursue education rather than drop out because they are behind.
On August 20, the feds announced they are extending the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) into September (max 28 weeks), before claimants are transitioned to an overhauled Employment Insurance system starting September 27. The transition will be automatic in most cases and the minimum number of hours required to qualify was reduced to 120 for a minimum payment of $400 per week. The government is also freezing the EI premium rate for two years for both individuals and businesses.
There are also three new EI benefits: Canada Recovery Benefit (max 26 weeks at $400 per week for self-employed, gig, contract workers, or those who are not eligible for regular EI but still can’t return to work); Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit for those who don’t have paid sick leave so they can stay home when sick or in quarantine without losing pay (max 2 weeks at $500 per week); and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit which pays $500 a week for 26 weeks (one person per household able to claim at a time) for those who have to stay home to care for a loved one due to pandemic related reasons.
Preparing for a second wave
The province unveiled a nine-point plan in preparation for a potential second wave, August 18. An emergency fund of $106 million has been earmarked to hire 1,000 employees for contact tracing.
The measures in the plan include: a manager responsible for each long-term care home (CHSLD); home support services adapted to users’ needs; massive recruitment of CHSLD workers; stopping workforce mobility throughout the system; reducing screening process times; assigning a person in each facility to prevention and infection control; supporting optimal services in surgery, endoscopy and medical imaging; ensuring sufficient reserves of PPE supplies; and reaching the entire population through targeted communications tailored to different audiences.