Students from Grade 5 and up will have to wear masks as they head back to school, Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced Monday as part of the province’s updated back-to-school plan.
The mask rule will apply to older elementary students and high school students — as well as people in vocational training or adult education programs — in common areas, including school transportation.
Once the student is inside the classroom, however, the mask rule will not apply.
“We want to preserve face-to-face contact. Expressions are important,” Roberge said.
Visitors will also have to wear masks, but will be allowed to remove them when seated at a distance from others.
On Friday, the Public Health Agency of Canada released guidelines for slowing the spread of the coronavirus among students and staff when schools reopen in September.
The federal guidelines for school administrators recommend that students over the age of 10 wear masks, that students and teachers stay two metres apart whenever possible and that students and teachers be grouped together to reduce the number of people they come into close contact with.
In Quebec, children 12 and up are already required to wear a mask in enclosed public spaces, including public transportation.
Class groups will not have to respect physical distancing
The province has also backtracked on the idea of “bubbles” containing six students. When the school year starts up, entire classes will be considered “bubbles.”
While students in the same class group will not have to observe physical distancing between themselves, the two-metre distance between students and staff members will be mandatory.
For weeks, parents, teachers unions and the opposition had criticized the government for what they called a lack of clarity, and had expressed concerns that the initial set of guidelines released for elementary and high school students in June did not go far enough.
Parents also demanded to be allowed access to distance learning for their children if they weren’t comfortable with students being back in class.
Roberge today said attendance will be mandatory for all elementary and high school students, unless they have a doctor’s note proving they have a medical condition that makes them more vulnerable to developing complications from COVID-19. A learning-from-home program will be available for these children.
Students with a family member who has a medical condition may also be eligible.
Families will be notified of any COVID-19 cases
Under the updated guidelines, once a student has tested positive for COVID-19, all parents and staff members of the school must be notified as soon as possible.
“If the case is in your child’s classroom, you will know. If it’s in your child’s school, you will be informed,” Roberge said. “We have nothing to hide.”
The infected child will then need to isolate themselves at home before being readmitted to class. During that time, the student will have to do schoolwork from home.
Anyone deemed to be at moderate to high risk of exposure to the infected student will also be sent home and be required to be tested.
Any student who shows symptoms of COVID-19 will be escorted out of the school by a staff member wearing protective equipment who will wait with them until a relative arrives.
If a child develops symptoms at home, it will be up to the parents to ensure they stay at home and contact Quebec public health.
No one-size-fits-all way of reopening schools
As COVID-19 curves plateau in several regions across Canada, questions of how and whether to reopen schools in the fall are of concern to parents and the general public alike.
University of Manitoba virologist Dr. Jason Kindrachuk says the current data suggests children get infected less often than adults do, but when they are infected, they carry at least as much virus as their adult counterparts.
“We don’t know what that means in terms of transmission,” Kindrachuk said.
He said there’s no one-size-fits-all way of returning to school, but that proper ventilation is important to limit the risk of transmission. The mask is an added bonus to practices that have become the norm, such as physical distancing and regular handwashing.
Parents can try to reinforce those practices with their children, he said, by teaching them “that we are in an era with a virus we have not seen before, and that we need to keep distance from one another to keep that virus from spreading.”