With some Quebec schools set to reopen next week, parents are facing a tough choice to send their kids back to class under restrictive and ambiguous rules or continue to keep them at home. And what they’re contemplating may foreshadow what other Canadian classes will look like in the fall if they resume in other provinces.
Elementary schools and daycares outside of the Montreal area are scheduled to reopen on Monday after shutting down on March 13. The reopening date in the Montreal area was pushed back to May 25 as COVID-19 cases in hospitals have not stabilized, Premier Francois Legault announced Thursday.
Returning to school is voluntary, and it’s expected that not all teachers will report for duty.
Students must stay in ‘personal space’
School will hardly be back to normal — the province has laid out strict guidelines, which many have already said are nearly impossible for children to follow, such as staying two metres away from each other. As well, playgrounds, libraries and computer labs are closed.
School boards have sent out more detailed parameters. The English Montreal School Board, for example, has informed parents there will be no music, drama, art, or physical education classes, and students may not have the same teachers or even be in the same class as before. A maximum of 15 students are allowed per classroom but “proper spacing may result in there only being adequate space for eight to 10 children,” said the board.
Students must stay in their own “personal space” of two metres by two metres, including at lunchtime. No one can use the water fountains.
Several parents told HuffPost Canada they’re worried about their children sitting in a classroom for several hours where they cannot interact properly with their friends and teachers, with the additional risk of them contracting COVID-19.
“I’m angry that I have to send them in under the circumstances because I have no other choice,” said Nadia Barberio, a mother of two elementary school kids in Montreal.
Barberio and her husband have both been working full time through the pandemic. Their children have been in Quebec’s emergency daycares while the couple are at work.
But as the province starts to reopen and businesses ramp back up, Barberio won’t be afforded the same flexible schedule that helped her manage her kids during the pandemic. With no family in the area, she feels she has no choice but to send them back to school.
“My kids have ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder],” she said. “They already have to move more than the regular child and now you’re adding to the fact where they have to sit at their desk, they have to eat their lunch there, they have to do everything there — this worries me.”
While Barberio saw the general rules from the school board, she said she’s received no information on how her children’ Individualized Education Plans, which allow them to receive specialized instruction, will proceed.
“We work really hard at home — but I’m not a teacher, I’m the furthest thing away from a teacher,” she said.
How will schools enforce guidelines?
Physical distancing measures seemed difficult enough for adults to follow, which has parents questioning how effectively schools will be able to enforce their back-to-school guidelines.
“I think that they have the best intentions and they’re using the latest World Health Organization guidelines and best practices and all that,” said Ken Kunicek, a father of two. “But to me the risk is still there, there are too many unknowns.”
Kunicek has one child in kindergarten and one in Grade 3. While the last eight weeks of working while also having to keep the kids busy at home has been challenging, he’s still on the fence about sending them back.
“I’m putting myself in the shoes of the teachers who are going to be there,” he said. “I’m not sure how it would feel because there’s one of you and there’s 12 or 14 kids. If one of them happens to be a carrier, then you’re the one who’s going to sort of pay the price.”
From conversations with the educators at her kids’ emergency daycare, Barberio has already seen how strenuous that task can be.
“They told me it was very difficult to keep telling them, ‘You guys have to move away, you have to move away’,” she said. “If they’re having trouble with a group of six, I don’t know how they’re going to do it with a group of 15.”
Teachers are anxious too. Under the province’s regulations, those who teach at elementary schools are not being asked to wear masks but can if they want to. The province also changed its rules concerning older educators: while previously advising teachers and daycare workers who were 60 years old and older to stay home, the province is now saying that the risk for people between the ages of 60 and 69 is low.
Heidi Yetman, head of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, said she has not heard back from provincial officials if teachers would have to return to schools if people in their household were in a high-risk category to contract COVID-19, reported the Globe and Mail.
Yetman told the newspaper, “It blows my mind that they didn’t come and consult us first.”
Barberio feels like Quebec is in a rush to open.
“I don’t know if they’re opening it up so that they have a place to put all the little kids so people can go back to work .... If it’s really safe, why isn’t everyone going back?” she said in an interview.
“The deaths are still going up, so I don’t understand how they think it’s a good time for the kids to go to school,” she said.
Quebec leads country in cases
As of Thursday, Quebec still has the most COVID-19 cases in Canada with more than 26,000 active cases and 2,631 deaths.
Lin Sok, who has three children in the English Montreal School Board system, said despite the numbers, reopening schools is something the province has to eventually do.
“Whether they open now or in September, we’re still going to go through this September.”
Sok isn’t as concerned about children abiding by the rules, as much as she is about schools having enough resources to maintain safe levels of sanitization. She remembers that, even before COVID-19, the hand sanitizer dispensers at her children’s school would often be empty.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to keep what’s going on in the daycare,” she pointed out. “Try telling a three-year-old to physically distance — all they want to do is hug each other.”
“The deaths are still going up, so I don’t understand how they think it’s a good time for the kids to go to school.”
“At the end of the day, more important than physical distancing is making sure that the school has soap and running water and hand sanitizer.”
But she does find it strange that schools are reopening before most businesses, especially given what she’s seen in Ontario, where Premier Doug Ford has called for the gradual opening of some retail stores, but not schools.
Other provinces have stated they are not interested in following Quebec’s lead and schools will remain closed in their jurisdictions.
Barberio hopes Quebec delays reopening schools until they can do it in a way where she doesn’t feel anxious about the conditions she’s sending her kids into.
“If I decide I’m keeping my kids home, then this affects my job,” she said. “I have to tell my boss I can’t work because I don’t want my kids at school and he can turn around and say, ‘But they can go.’”
But sending them to school means Barberio is left grappling with a lot of unknowns. How will their teachers manage? How will her kids manage? How does she know that her decision isn’t putting them at risk?
“It … really doesn’t make me feel good as a parent,” she said.