Thousands of Quebec students head back to school amid coronavirus worries

Click to play video: 'West Island private school puts extra coronavirus measures in effect' West Island private school puts extra coronavirus measures in effect
A private elementary school in Montreal's West Island is going above and beyond the Quebec government's directives to limit the spread of COVID-19. Global's Phil Carpenter reports – Aug 27, 2020

Thousands of students across Quebec are heading back to school Thursday morning as criticism and apprehension continue to mount over the province’s novel coronavirus health crisis measures for the education system.

This includes students in the hard-hit Greater Montreal area, where schools were closed for months to contain the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. In the city’s east end, positive cases among staff members at three schools have prompted at least eight people to self-isolate on the first day of class.

Under the plan, masks are mandatory in common spaces for staff and students in grades 5 and up. They do not have to wear masks in the classroom, however.

Classes will also act as a bubble for students and physical distancing between them is not required within that room. Physical distancing is obligatory in common spaces such as hallways.

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Read more: 3 faculty and staff members test positive at schools in Montreal’s east end

Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge has stood by his back-to-school plan, saying it is important for children and teenagers to socialize and learn in a school setting.

On Monday, he said the province is open to adjusting its health directives if necessary but that it’s important to follow the ones currently in place to prevent outbreaks in schools.

“We have to respect the rules,” he said.

Health Minister Christian Dubé said he had “enough reassurance” the province has “done all the right things” for its back-to-school plan.

“We’re learning but we will do everything to make sure that our kids are in a safe environment,” he said.

READ MORE: Montreal-area parent, teacher call for mandatory masks in Quebec classrooms

The measures, however, have been met with criticism and apprehension by parents and teachers’ unions in the weeks leading up to the school year.

Earlier this week, more than 150 doctors and scientists also published an open letter urging François Legault’s government to require social distancing within classrooms, mask-wearing for all students, and to oblige schools to screen children for symptoms of COVID-19.

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The Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) said Wednesday its preliminary data shows that around 150 teachers have requested medical exemptions.

Allaying fears with additional measures

Some schools, however, aren’t waiting for the government to release new guidelines.

At Marie-Claire Academy, a private school in Kirkland, school officials have gone above and beyond government requirements to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

Checking the temperature of every single person who enters the building is just one measure the school has put in place.

The biggest changes, however, are to be found in the classroom.

“We installed plexiglass on all of the desks so that each student can have maximum security,” said school principal Henry Zephirin.

Each station is also one metre away from the neighbouring stations.

Read more: Quebec high school teacher resigns over government’s COVID-19 guidelines

The school says some furniture had to be removed from classrooms to allow for the new layout.

Teachers say they are surprised at how well many students have adapted to the plexiglass bubbles.

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“To our surprise, when we sat them down they felt it was their cubicle, their little house, ‘Oh nobody is going to be able to take this,'” said Zephirin.

Students are required to stay in the classroom for the entire day except for recess and bathroom breaks. They even eat lunch at their desks.

And while students say they understand the need for the new measures, some say it’s difficult to stay away from their friends and they’ll need some time to adjust.

“It’s really hard for me,” said student Charlotte Yonke. “I miss them a lot and so it’s pretty hard for me not to feel like to hug them or something.”

With files from Global News’ Felicia Parrillo, Phil Carpenter and the Canadian Press

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