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Quebec nixes ministerial exams, stands by decision to reopen schools amid coronavirus surge

Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Roberge spells out back to school lockdown rules' Coronavirus: Roberge spells out back to school lockdown rules
WATCH: As elementary school students prepare to head back to school on Monday, the education minister spelled out some new measures on Friday. From delayed report cards to the cancellation of provincial exams and new mask rules, officials tried to calm fears that students, parents and teachers may have, amid high COVID-19 rates and new lockdown measures. Global’s Felicia Parrillo reports – Jan 8, 2021

Quebec is cancelling ministerial exams for students as schools prepare to physically reopen amid the deepening second wave of the novel coronavirus crisis.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced a series of measures Friday to help students and staff navigate the rest of the school year during a worsening pandemic. He was accompanied by Dr. Richard Massé, an advisor with the province’s public health department.

“We’re upon hard times so we have to do things differently,” Roberge said.

The first report card of the academic year, which was due Jan. 22, has been pushed to Feb. 5 as needed. Roberge also announced the second report card will be worth more than the first one to give students who struggled during the pandemic a chance to catch up.

READ MORE: Here’s how Quebec’s latest lockdown rules and nightly curfew will work

When it comes to ministerial exams at the end of the year, they have been cancelled for students in both elementary and high schools.

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Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Quebec changes report card value, cancels ministerial exams' Coronavirus: Quebec changes report card value, cancels ministerial exams
Coronavirus: Quebec changes report card value, cancels ministerial exams – Jan 8, 2021

As part of the new measures, the province is launching a free tutoring program to help students, as well as providing computers or tablets to students who need them. There will also be other additional resources for learning and mental health.

“It’s an exceptional year,” Roberge explained.

The update comes as Quebec enters a new phase of lockdown this weekend to stem the tide of COVID-19. This includes a nightly curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. until Feb. 8.

Some sectors and non-essential businesses will remain closed but the government will not shutter schools. Elementary schools are set to physically reopen next Monday as previously announced.

Grade 5 and 6 students will now have to wear masks in the classrooms, however, while younger children will only have to wear masks while in common areas such as hallways and buses.

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Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Quebec to recruit additional tutoring staff to help students' Coronavirus: Quebec to recruit additional tutoring staff to help students
Coronavirus: Quebec to recruit additional tutoring staff to help students – Jan 8, 2021

High schools will continue with online learning next week after reopening was pushed back due to the surge in COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations in Quebec.

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Teenagers will return to class on Jan. 18. They will be provided two disposable masks per day.

Concerns over schools reopening

When asked about parents and teachers who may be nervous about returning to school as COVID-19 cases climb in the province, Roberge said he understood those concerns but that “for most of the kids, most of the students, the best place to be is in school.”

But some educators, like Grade 11 teacher Catherine Hogan, question the decision to keep schools open while Quebec enters a new stage of restrictions.

“I found it to be a bit of a confusing lockdown when the rest of the province is locked down but tens of thousands of people are not part of that lock down,” she said.

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Teachers have also been preparing for a possible shutdown, she added.

“I thought since we have the professional development, we’ve done the training, we can be effective teachers online, for short periods of time. It just seemed strange that we weren’t staying online for the duration of the lockdown and returning to school at the beginning of February.”

Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Quebec public security minister spells out rules around curfew' Coronavirus: Quebec public security minister spells out rules around curfew
Coronavirus: Quebec public security minister spells out rules around curfew – Jan 7, 2021

Massé, for his part, told reporters that schools aren’t driving COVID-19 transmission in Quebec. Rather, he said, they are a reflection of the virus’s spread in the community.

Miranda Feenstra, whose 10-year-old daughter Tristan is set to return to school on Monday, said she will not be sending her daughter to class next week.

“Children can transmit the virus, it was a point that was made during Mr. Legault’s announcement Wednesday, and yet it’s still OK to put them in a room with 20 plus children and other adults,” she said.

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The decision to keep children in school — despite the spike in cases and hospitalizations — left Feenstra feeling floored.

“I realize that for children the complications are low, but it’s the transmitting it others.”

“For me, I’m a single parent — if I get sick, this is who is taking care of me,” she added, while pointing to her daughter.

Quebec testing air quality in schools but does not recommend purifiers

As for ventilation in the educational sphere, Roberge announced the province is carrying out air quality tests to check for the presence of carbon dioxide in 3,300 schools.

So far, the air quality in 1,369 classrooms has been tested three times each with “quite encouraging” results, he said. Roberge added only three per cent of the premises were problematic and alternative measures will be put in place.

The long-awaited report on ventilation and aerosols in schools also does not recommend air purifiers in classrooms, officials said. Massé pointed to a lack of evidence of the effectiveness of the devices to limit transmission, among other reasons.

Instead, recommendations include opening windows and doors several times per day to ventilate.

The use of air purifiers could also lead to a “false sense of security,” according to Massé.

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“We don’t think it’s the solution,” he said.

Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Quebec public health advisor lays out 3 reasons for not recommending air purifiers in schools' Coronavirus: Quebec public health advisor lays out 3 reasons for not recommending air purifiers in schools
Coronavirus: Quebec public health advisor lays out 3 reasons for not recommending air purifiers in schools – Jan 8, 2021

With files from Global News’ Felicia Parrillo and The Canadian Press