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Opponents of Quebec's back-to-school plan urge province to reconsider


MONTREAL — A group of Quebec educators rallied against the provincial government's back-to-school plan Sunday, saying more needs to be done to ensure the safety of students and staff ahead of an unprecedented school year.

Alex Pelchat, an elementary school teacher in Montreal and spokesman for Progressive Education Workers, the group organizing the protest, said teachers understand that school is necessary for students.

"But we also believe it needs to be done safely," he said, noting Quebec is one of the few jurisdictions in North America that is reopening schools full-time.

He said maintaining normal student-to-staff ratios during a pandemic could lead to major problems in the coming weeks.

"Currently the plan is to return at full capacity and that's going to create a lot of new COVID cases with up to 30 kids in elementary school (classes) and 40 kids in high school," Pelchat said.

He said Quebec should consider what other regions are doing — introducing a hybrid model, dividing a class into two or three groups and combining home learning with a physical return to the classroom.

"That is the most realistic thing. Sadly, we can't just double the number of classrooms, because we're even currently missing 500 teachers in Montreal," Pelchat said, noting an annual shortage of teachers.

The teachers also called for increased investment in custodial staff so schools can be sanitized properly.

Quebec's updated back-to-school plan requires students in Grade 5 and up to wear masks in all common areas of school buildings, but not in the classroom.

Each classroom will be its own "bubble," and students will not be required to maintain a two-metre distance with their classmates.

There will be limited mixing between classes and in the event of an outbreak, parents will be advised and the affected classroom bubble will be sent home to continue studies remotely.

Quebec's school service centres have until mid-September to come up with contingency plans should schools close down.

In May, Quebec became the first province to reopen elementary schools — but only outside the Montreal area, which is the worst hit region in the country.

Pelchat noted that even then, classes were capped at 15 students and high schools remained closed.

"We believe the reality of Montreal is different, as it is for larger cities," he said. "There should definitely be measures for cities that are larger and more affected by COVID."

While students will stay confined to a classroom bubble, some teachers will be required to move around.

Marion Miller, an art teacher, said she has more questions than answers about how that will work when it comes to disinfecting materials and a host of other new procedures.

"As a specialist teacher, I'll be seeing 380 students a week, none of whom are distancing, all in groups of 25 or 27 students," Miller said.

She suggested staggering the return to class to give everyone more time to figure things out.

On Friday, lawyers representing some parents filed a motion in Quebec Superior Court to oblige the province to offer remote learning to families who don't want their kids back in school during the pandemic.

The motion argues that requiring children to attend classes in person violates their parents' charter rights to make decisions that affect their health and safety.

The province has limited online learning for children who have a medical condition that puts them at risk if they contract COVID-19, or for those who live with someone who has such a condition.

Barring that exemption, students can either attend class or be home-schooled.

On Sunday, Quebec reported 74 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of infections in the province to 61,673.

The provincial Health Department added one more death for which the date was unknown to bring that total to 5,740. The province says 54,682 people have recovered from the virus.

Hospitalizations were down seven to 117, of which 14 remain in intensive care — a decrease of two from the previous day.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 23, 2020.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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