Return to Schools: An Uncalculated Move

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Hussein Hoballah, Montreal

For weeks, Quebec’s government has urged parents to keep their children home and prevent them from going out to parks and socialising in fear of contacting Coronavirus. Quebec has so far seen the highest rate of infections and fatalities among Canadian citizens. But now completely different directions are being made, with which parents and teachers are completely dissatisfied.

Whereas danger still lurks in Quebec, where infections last Saturday reached 29,656, including 2,136 deaths, Quebec’s government headed by François Legault declared last week that since the 11th of May, parents living outside Greater Montreal could resend their children to schools or daycare centres, whereas Montreal’s schools and daycares could open a week later. As for high schools and universities, they wouldn’t be open until September.

The other provinces have been more considerate as to reopening schools. Ontario, for instance, declared that public schools would still be closed until the end of May. Minister Stephen Lecce saw it wouldn’t be safe to reopen schools in the province before the 1st of June at the minimum. The other provinces have not even set date to resume schooling.

Legault referred his government’s decision to lift the preventive restrictions and resume schooling, in part, to the fact that the chance of kids contacting COVID-19 is very low. Scientifically unproved, Legault’s argument is perceived as wrong by experts, who don’t believe that exposing pupils to infection would lead to “herd immunity”.

Legault has yet made another disputed opinion, believing that it would be good for children to come back to school amid potential dangers, especially “low-achieving students and those with domestic issues”. Still, he left it to parents to decide on resending their children to schools or not. Simultaneously, parents who don’t wish to bring their children to schools or daycares will have to pay fees if they wish to keep room for their children until the 1st of September, as Quebec’s Minister of Families Mathieu Lacombe earlier declared.

It’s clear that Legault hasn’t consulted school boards or parents regarding this experiment, which is very difficult to conduct professionally. That is, dealing with very young pupils and forcing them to abide by law isn’t that easy, so how about keeping them away from their classmates when they won’t miss a chance to play with them and stay in proximity?

Quebec’s premier has left it to teachers to make sure that daycare centres are abiding by the physical distancing (6 feet). That is a laborious task for teachers; schools will have to redistribute students; no more than 15 can actually be in class, and more room will have to be made for any other students in case parents respond to Legault’s call.

They will also need to rethink seating students on buses so as to maintain physical distancing. Another tasks they’ll have is replacing teachers who can’t attend school, but are working from home due to age or health issues, which is isn’t easy to do. Quebec’s English-Language School Boards Association has confirmed the boards can’t safely reopen their schools as scheduled officially, and they plan to keep them unopened until they can safely do otherwise.

Some parents are afraid of this step, say they, and they believe that’s too much for teachers. Some of them say “making little kids abide by physical distancing in classrooms or playgrounds and washing their hands over and over again won’t be possible”. A teacher told press she was dissatisfied with the decision: "… Frankly, the very idea of social distancing in an elementary school is laughable. It'll be a different situation, potentially a different teacher, a different classroom.”

Ms Hanadi Saad, President of “Justice Femme” has been following this closely. She confirms, “This is meaningless, especially that the school year is almost over. No research supports the premier’s claim that children will be safe.”

Saad believes that “the reason why the greatest fatalities have been among the elderly is contacting the virus from some workers and nurses, especially when the elderly’s immunity’s weak”. Seeing that the pandemic rarely hits children, she confirms the reason is “parents keeping them at home and protecting them from the contagion.” She mentions a child, almost 7, has been infected and is now in CHU Sainte-Justine.

Activist Saad confirms “it is impossible to implement physical distancing between students in elementary schools; children might contract the virus then become contagious to their parents and neighbours”. As for daycare centres, she believes “there is no way children under 5 can be physically distanced. Like schoolteachers, daycarers will be exposed to danger.” Moreover, she says Legault has “economic motives beyond his decision; he’s belittling people’s lives, especially in Greater Montreal,” and she hopes he changes his mind.

It seems Legault does have strict economic motives, now that recession has hit the province and Canada in general, even the entire world, but that doesn’t mean the risks of lifting restrictions can be overlooked. That will be totally uncalculated and might ruin everything once again and help spread the lethal virus among citizens.

That’s why the government is asked to listen to people’s fears and to reconsider its decision until the pandemic is contained or an effective treatment is discovered. If not, more will get infected or die, unless the Quebecois ruling party has got different information unrevealed to experts, teachers and parents!