Elementary schools in the Outaouais are set to open their doors
& Carl Hager
OUTAOUAIS – On April 27 and 28, the province unveiled its plans for reopening schools, daycares and businesses amid the Covid-19 pandemic “for social reasons and because the situation is under control” with decreasing hospitalizations. The government emphasized that if any action contributes to the spread of the virus, it will be revoked.
“If the situation remains as it is now, we will be reopening primary schools and daycares May 11 outside of the greater Montreal area and on May 19 in the greater Montreal area,” said Premier Francois Legault on April 27, citing five reasons for the decision, which began with “for the well- being of children” and ended with “because life must continue”.
High schools, CEGEPs and universities will remain closed until September, but remote learning will be offered.
Parents aren’t obliged to send their kids back to school and students won’t be penalized for staying home; assignments will be sent to them. However, according to the Minister of Education, Jean-François Roberge, it would be better for students with special needs or learning disabilities, or those who were failing in the early semesters, to return to school if they don’t have health problems. Children with health problems, or whose parents or family members have such problems, should stay home. Similarly, school staff over age 60 or who have health issues shouldn’t return.
Class sizes will be capped at 15 students and school yards will be altered to prevent all students from being together at once. There will be one student per seat on buses and plexiglass shields may be installed to protect drivers.
For daycares, the occupancy rate will be increased gradually over time, with parents occupying “essential” jobs given priority. Normal rates will apply for those who use the service, but parents who don’t will retain their spots and won’t be charged.
The news has left teachers, parents, school boards and unions with mixed reactions as some worry about the lack of time to prepare.
Heidi Yetman, president of the Québec Provincial Association of Teachers, says unions are calling Legault’s decision a ‘no plan’. “Opening schools now makes no sense. There has been no time to properly put in place measures to ensure safety. Opening in September would have [ensured proper planning],” she said, a position Brian Smeltzer, president of the Western Québec Teachers’ Association, shares.
Cathy Nugent, a teacher at Onslow School in Quyon, wonders how social distancing is even possible at school. “How will we ensure all surfaces stay clean; books, papers and computers? Not all classrooms are equipped with desks but communal tables. Our washrooms, staff rooms and some classrooms are small. Can enough safeguards be implemented before classes begin?” she asked.
Erin Kelly-Duffy, a teacher at St. John’s Elementary in Campbell’s Bay, agrees. “The turnaround is too quick and we don’t even have proper supplies yet (gloves, hand sanitizer on back order). There’s so many logistics to work out it seems almost impossible. Everyone is burning the midnight oil trying to figure it out,” she said, noting she isn’t against students returning, but wishes more time had been given to prepare.
Pontiac MNA André Fortin said there are too many unanswered questions. “It’s vital to obtain answers before making a decision to return our children to school,” he said, noting he and his wife haven’t decided what they will do with their two young daughters.
“Parents are calling us and we don’t have the answers. Stress is high because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” added Kelly Duffy.
Fortin also asked why Québec, the province with by far the most cases, is the first jurisdiction to re-open schools and daycares. “The government’s own Public Health officers seem worried. The day before the announcement, they published a paper stating that by increasing interactions by 10%, there would very likely be a significant increase in COVID cases and deaths,” he explained.
Joanne Labadie, a Western Québec School Board (WQSB) commissioner, says with many areas of the Pontiac lacking internet service, many students can’t do online learning. “This puts parents in a moral dilemma. Do they risk sending their child? Do they prioritize learning? Are they satisfied that physical distancing requirements will be met? When it comes down to it, do parents really know enough about the pandemic to make a good decision?” she added.
Alain Guy, WQSB Chairperson, said the board is working hard to determine logistics. “Our administrators say they can do it, so I believe willpower will get us there. It’s fast, but we knew it was coming,” he said, noting a major challenge will be coordinating busing and teachers if a high rate of students return. A lot of the staff is over 60, but high school teachers can fill in the gaps, he said.
The government has asked teachers not to teach new material to avoid disadvantaging students who don’t return, which Guy believes could be a problem for Grade 6 students entering high school in the fall.
This directive has left people wondering if returning for what’s left of the school year is worthwhile. “My sense is it’s an exercise of preparedness for the fall so we can learn what we need to do and get organized. We don’t know what the system will look like in the fall, but we certainly know it will be different,” concluded Guy.
Kelly-Duffy said a lot of time will be spent implementing new procedures and routines, sanitizing objects, etc. “I’m sure there will be some quality teaching, but it will take some time to get to that point,” she said.
The Quebec English School Board Association issued a statement on May 1 stating that while none of their nine schools boards would re-open early, each board will “decide if and when each of their schools and centres may re-open once they determine that all required conditions can be met”.
The Commission scolaire des Hauts-Bois-de l’Outaouais declined to
Slowly restarting the economy
The following day, Legault announced many Québec businesses in three major sectors will reopen gradually throughout May: retail stores (excluding malls or stores that don’t have outside entrances); construction and civil engineering; and manufacturing companies, plants and factories. Start date for these businesses outside of Montreal was May 4, while those in Montreal can reopen May 11. Factories and construction sites will have limits on the number of workers per site, a restriction that will be lifted May 25.
Restaurants (other than take-out), museums, salons and spas, stadiums, etc. will remain closed for now.
It is expected that 450,000 of the 1.2-million Quebeckers, who are currently off work, will be back on the job by the end of May. Dr. Horacio Arruda, Québec’s Director of Public Health, said there will continue to be positive cases, but the question is how to balance them while keeping in mind that the economy, mental health and money are determinants of health too.
Sunday store closures will continue throughout May.
Border controls lifting
In a press conference on April 29, Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault said authorities will gradually remove restrictions on travel
within the province, starting May 4 with the Lanaudière, Chaudière-Appalaches and Laurentides regions. Traffic controls will be gradually eliminated starting May 11 in the Outaouais, with the exception of Gatineau. A date hasn’t been set for lifting controls in Gatineau and on interprovincial bridges between Gatineau and Ottawa.
MRC Pontiac Warden Jane Toller confirmed control points at the bridges to Ontario in Portage-du-Fort and L’Isle-aux-Allumettes will be eliminated starting May 11.
Despite the reduced restrictions, Guilbault cautioned residents not to travel for non-essential reasons.
As of press time, there were over 32,600 cases in quebec (2,280 deaths). The outaouais now has 304 cases (169 recovered) and 4 deaths.
CISSSO began releasing data by municipality on April 27, and although the MRC Pontiac was initially said to have <5 or less cases, that’s no longer the case now that the Municipality of Pontiac and MRC Pontiac have been separated. “These regions were initially grouped together because we share the same health system. After many requests to CISSSO, they decided to [change this] for the sake of transparency,” said Toller. The Municipality of Pontiac has 5 cases while the MRC Pontiac has 0. “Even though we now know there are no confirmed cases in our MRC, it doesn’t mean we’re no longer at risk,” Toller concluded.