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Coronavirus: Quebec doctors urge re-think of province’s back-to-school plan in open letter

School bus. Global News / File

Well over 100 Quebec doctors and scientists have signed an open letter urging a re-think of the province’s back-to-school plan amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter, addressed to Premier François Legault, Health Minister Christian Dubé and Education Minister Jean-François Roberge, as well as the Quebec and Montreal public health directors, Dr. Horacio Arruda and Dr. Mylène Drouin, says the current plan to get Quebec’s roughly 900,000 grade-school students back into the classroom “is inadequate and needs to be improved.”

It warns that flaws in the current plan could make outbreaks of COVID-19 among students, staff and parents inevitable.

“This could, ultimately, undo much of our efforts to control this epidemic that have been made collectively in the last six months,” the letter says.

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Among other things, the letter urges the government to mandate physical distancing of at least one metre among all students in all areas of schools. Under the province’s current plan, distancing is not expected to be strictly enforced within classrooms, something the letter says “is contrary to current recommendations by many expert groups.”

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The letter recommends that Quebec follow the lead of Norway and Denmark, which have made physical distancing enforceable within classrooms by shrinking class sizes to 12 to 15 children.

It also asks the government to extend mandatory mask rules to the classroom as well, which, as the letter points out, is “where students spend most of their day in close proximity to their peers.”

The letter also says the government should seriously consider making online learning an option for families that want it this fall.

“Each family should have the right to determine based on their own specific set of circumstances whether their child should attend school in person this fall,” the letter says.

It also says an online option would take some pressure off schools that are tight on space, which could make other recommendations in the letter — notably physical distancing in classrooms — easier to implement, too.

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Rounding out the five major recommendations of the letter are mandatory daily screening for symptoms, and urgent work to improve air quality and ventilation systems in older school buildings.

The letter says many countries have successfully welcomed students back to the classroom while largely shielding children and their families from serious outbreaks of COVID-19, citing the Netherlands, Germany and South Korea. However, it also makes note of Israel, which reopened schools quickly and saw large outbreaks of the coronavirus among students.

“Since it is impossible to accurately predict the impact of school reopening in Quebec,” the letter concludes, “a careful and prudent approach to school reopening is strongly recommended.”

The Quebec government has stood by its plan, but Dubé said Tuesday the province is willing to readjust its measures if necessary.

With files from Global News’ Kalina Laframboise