Pressure mounting in Quebec for masks in class as number of school outbreaks grows

There are now more than 500 schools in Quebec reporting at least one case of COVID-19, and more than 80 are reporting more than one case.

An empty classroom.

Coronavirus outbreaks within Quebec schools are multiplying and pressure is increasing on the government to require children to wear masks in the classroom.

While public health officials say outbreaks at schools are small and under control, there are now more than 500 schools in Quebec reporting at least one case of COVID-19. More than 80 are reporting more than one case within their school.

Quebec’s public health director says there is no evidence of widespread transmission of the coronavirus within schools. But some experts are unsure.

Contact-tracing data support the public health emphasis that cases in schools mainly reflect community spread, but the latest surge in cases has overwhelmed contact-tracing efforts in some areas, said Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious disease specialist at the Jewish General Hospital and assistant professor in the department of medicine at McGill University.

Quebec’s education ministry publishes a running list of the number of schools that have reported at least one case of COVID-19. Schools on that list are coloured pink if they have reported a second case of the virus. More than 80 of the schools, 30 in Montreal, are now coloured pink on the ministry’s website, meaning they have multiple cases of the virus.

But where are children contracting the virus? Is it spreading within the classroom at those pink schools? Or are children from different classes catching the virus at home or outside and bringing it to school?

The Montreal Gazette tried to answer those basic questions this week.

Montreal public health officials say they are fighting 27 outbreaks in schools that involve spread between staff or students in one classroom “bubble,” suggesting that most of the secondary transmission that is happening at Montreal’s schools is happening within the classroom.

Additionally, media reports, social media testimony and information listed on the citizen-run COVID Écoles Quebec website reveal that COVID-19 is spreading in the classroom at an increasingly frequent rate.

The Montreal Gazette contacted nearly every school labelled pink in Montreal, and several outside the city, to ask whether the two or more cases of COVID-19 reported at their establishment came from the same class in an effort to understand where COVID-19 was spreading through the classroom and where it was not. In almost every case, school officials refused to answer the question, citing privacy concerns.

Communications officials at school service centres were able to point us toward the government numbers but did not provide information that would help determine how often students with the virus were contracting it in the classroom.

“There are increasing holes in our data that mean we are less and less able to know what’s happening,” Oughton said. “We don’t know if they are getting it from school and bringing it home, we don’t know if they are getting it at home and potentially bringing it to other people at school.

“I think you also have to be concerned about transmission at schools and then it being dispersed and brought home.”

On Thursday, Arruda again ruled out requiring kids to wear masks in the classroom, but said public health officials are considering possibly making that change.

“We will follow the situation,” he said. “There are people who have already given opinions, doctors, and so on. We’re going to look at it with my public health experts, and then we’re going to balance it all out.”

Opposition parties have criticized the government for its refusal to mandate masks, suggesting the Legault government is hesitating because the policy would be unpopular.

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