Allison Hanes: Quebec's back-to-school plan fails to reassure parents

If the true intent of the Quebec government's back-to-school plan was to scare skittish parents into keeping their kids home this fall in a surreptitious bid to reduce class sizes and lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission, then Monday's announcement was likely mission accomplished.

Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec's director of public health, holds up his face mask as he unveils an updated back-to-school plan for the 2020-2021 school year at a news conference in Montreal, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020.

If the true intent of the Quebec government’s back-to-school plan was to scare skittish parents into keeping their kids home this fall in a surreptitious bid to reduce class sizes and lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission, then Monday’s announcement was likely mission accomplished.

If the idea was to actually inspire confidence that it’s safe for kids and teachers to return to school in three weeks, then the message backfired spectacularly.

Angst was already rising among nervous families about the finer points of Quebec’s blueprint, unveiled last June. Everyone was hoping for some reassurances from the long-awaited update offered by the trifecta of Education Minister Jean-François Roberge, Health Minister Christian Dubé and national director of public health Dr. Horacio Arruda. Absolutely nobody expected the final draft to loosen certain measures, namely by nixing the six-kid bubbles that were supposed to limit contacts within larger classes at the primary level.

Bubbles are out and masks are in for students in Grade 5 and up. Kids don’t have to wear them in class, mind you, but they will have to wear them in the hallways, cafeteria or on school buses.

Children will no longer have to socially distance within their classrooms, so scratch metre stick off the school supply list and add mask instead. Each class is essentially one big bubble now. This, of course, means students will be in close proximity with roughly two dozen people each day instead of the earlier six.

But don’t worry, Roberge insisted, schools will be in regular communication with students’ families. Parents will not only be notified if there’s a case of coronavirus in their child’s class, but also if there’s a diagnosis of COVID-19 in the school. (If those letters get to be as frequent as the typical warnings about lice and pinworms pre-pandemic, then I am genuinely afraid).

In fact, Roberge promised a whole raft of useful government information about the coronavirus — in French and even English — that will be channelled through schools. There will be a website, info line and handy charts about what to do if your kid spikes a fever to tape to the fridge.

What there won’t be, is a shift to distance learning as an alternative to mandatory class attendance, except for children with health conditions. Some Quebec parents have been pushing for this option, which is being offered in Ontario. A hybrid system was proposed when Quebec was examining how to bring students back last spring, before it cancelled the return to school in greater Montreal altogether. Perhaps they saw then how great the uptake was going to be then and realized they don’t have the resources to devote to both remote and in-class education.

But if a school — or all schools — have to close as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak, Roberge promised courses will shift online within 24 hours.

“I call it my quality/equity guarantee,” he said, sounding like a used-car salesman.

Roberge touted the success of Quebec’s operation to get children back to school in the regions last spring. Very few cases occurred in schools, he noted, and even those that arose weren’t necessarily transmitted there. Of course, he neglected to mention this effort probably worked because most classes were half empty since many parents didn’t send their kids back, or the fact that those students who returned had plenty of room to spread out and were required to socially distance.

It’s much harder to see how this less strict plan requiring more students to be in closer quarters will protect public health — especially in Montreal where schools are overcrowded and in a poor state of repair.

There is probably no back-to-school plan that will please everybody. Wherever children have gone back to school, it’s been trial and error based on the best science available at the time. Parents everywhere are being asked to take leap of faith with their kids’ health. But in Quebec, it feels like we’re jumping off the ledge, straight into the maw of a second wave.

Even with Arruda saying that depriving children of the benefits of a classroom education is almost worse than the risks of COVID-19 itself (which may be true in many respects), the well-oiled government sales pitch has failed to convince.

Incredulous parents, many of whom tuned in to the press conference to hear the latest plan first hand, started balking in real time and are already discussing taking matters into their own hands, with home-schoolingor private tutors.

But maybe that was the idea all along.

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