Quebec has provided a glimpse into what school will look like in the fall. Students in Grade 5 and above will have to wear masks in common areas and hallways, but not in class; classmates will stay together and won’t mingle with other groups; and some students will be studying at home.
The details came on Monday when Education Minister Jean-François Roberge, accompanied by Health Minister Christian Dubé and Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s director of public health, announced the government’s updated back-to-school plan.
Three weeks before classes are set to begin, the announcement gave parents, teachers and students their first look at the new normal for schools when they reopen.
Teachers and staff will also have to wear masks, but Roberge said it will not be mandatory in the classroom because of the challenge it presents to interpersonal communication.
“We want to preserve the ease of communication,” he said. “Face-to-face contact, facial expressions, are important.”
A growing body of research indicates that mask-wearing, even by children aged 10, probably provides an added layer of protection against the spread of the virus.
Roberge also abandoned the idea of keeping students in small “bubbles,” a hallmark of the plan he announced in June. Classes will no longer be divided into small subgroups, but they will still act as self-contained units where classmates will be allowed to come within two metres of one another. Interactions between students from different classes will be subject to the usual physical distancing measures.
“The smaller subgroup bubbles were a constraint that brought a lot of pedagogical challenges compared with the advantages it had with limiting the spread of the virus,” Roberge said.
The minister also responded to concerned parents who fear that their child or a relative is particularly vulnerable to the virus: “I want to tell those families, those parents, your children have the right — with a valid medical note — to remote learning.”
He has given school service centres and school boards the responsibility of offering remote learning options for those children who are at risk.
Those remote learning plans might also come into effect in the event that a COVID-19 outbreak forces students to stay home, but the government has yet to give schools instruction on what measures to take should a student or staff member test positive.
Roberge said details to that end were on their way. In the coming weeks, the education ministry would issue a guide for parents and administrators to follow if the virus is present at their establishment.
“We are able to open our schools while protecting our children and school staff,” Roberge said, citing the opening of some Quebec schools in May. “We had few cases in our schools this spring and many of the cases we had were children who contracted COVID outside of school.”
He insisted that the ministry would strive to be transparent with information about any new coronavirus outbreaks.
“If there is a declared positive COVID-19 case in your child’s school, you will be informed,” Roberge said. “If there is a case in your child’s class, you’ll know about it. If there is a case in another class at your child’s school, you’ll know about it.”
In his tentative June announcement, Roberge had said preschool, elementary school and Cycle One high school students were to attend class in person every day in the fall at normal student-teacher ratios, but masks were not mandatory in schools.
Monday’s update did not overhaul the earlier plan, but it did add detail and introduce some changes to it. Dubé said officials made those changes because they have since learned more about the virus.
The plan was announced only three weeks before the start of the school year because officials needed to gauge the current state of the pandemic, Roberge said. “At the same time, we’re far enough away from the start of the school year that the system can prepare,” he said.
Some elements of the June plan remain unchanged, including the allowance that students in Grades 9, 10 and 11 will probably have some courses online.