As of this week, some Quebec students are back in school while others will only get started next week.
But already, anxiety over the spread of novel coronavirus in schools is ramping up.
Tracy, who preferred not to give her last name to protect her children’s identity, was appalled to find out there were 36 students in her son’s class at a Montreal-area high school.
“They’re very cramped. He said they were literally one on top of the other,” she said. “I find the class sizes very alarming.”
Tracy feels government guidelines don’t go far enough to ensure the safety of children and staff in the classroom, where social distancing is difficult.
“Can we not find a way to have staggered learning? Can we not do hybrid learning,” she asked.
At the very least, Tracy believes masks should be made mandatory in the classroom.
Under current government guidelines, masks are only mandatory for Grades 5 and up in the hallways and common areas of the school — but not in classrooms.
“We’ve always been encouraged to put masks on where we can’t honour these kinds of distancing rules,” she said. “These distancing rules are not being made possible in classrooms so why are we not being asked to do this alternative or this extra measure?”
That sentiment was echoed by Robert Green, a teacher at Westmount High School.
“I would like to see a mandatory mask rule, I would like to see drastic reductions in class size,” he said. “I don’t think they should be bigger than 15 in any class in this province.”
While the school’s administration is strongly encouraging students to wear masks in class, it’s not something that can be enforced.
“Unfortunately, because of the government’s directives, we’re not allowed to mandate that in the classroom,” he said. “So if a student chooses not to wear their mask, there’s nothing we can say.”
Green said the government directives are making him and his colleagues very nervous.
“It puts my safety at risk, it puts my student’s safety at risk, it puts all of our families’ safety at risk,” he said. “I think it’s reckless.”
Dr. Christopher Labos, a cardiologist with a degree in epidemiology, said wearing masks is ideal to limit the spread of the virus.
“If we can get kids in schools to wear masks in class and throughout your school day, you’re going to have less viral spread,” he said.
“When you’re talking about older children and teenagers, biologically they’re very similar to adults. So we know that with adults and more members of the general public wearing masks decreases transmission of the virus.”
In a written statement to Global News, a government spokesperson defended the education ministry’s back-to-school plan.
“The back-to-school plan was jointly developed by Public Health, and very well received by all stakeholders in the school network,” said Francis Bouchard, the education minister’s press attaché.
“Everything has been put in place to, on the one hand, prevent as much as possible any potential spread of the virus and, on the other hand, ensure a most rewarding educational experience for our students.”
Bouchard also pointed to a successful return to school for many students outside the Greater Montreal area in the spring.
“The collaboration of Public Health enabled us, last spring, to bring hundreds of thousands of students back to class, without relaunching the pandemic. We are confident that by following their recommendations, we can do the same this fall.”
He concluded by saying the plan was “comprehensive and based on the recommendations of our experts.”
“We understand that some may have concerns, now we must trust our public health experts, who are better placed than anyone to judge the effectiveness of the measures put in place.”