After an extended closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teenagers in Quebec are headed back to the classroom — but the return has elicited a mix of emotions from concerned parents and teachers.
High schools and adult education centres across the province are shifting back to in-person classes after reopening was delayed. They were closed since Dec. 17, with remote learning in place for some of the weeks.
Earlier this month, the province unveiled tighter measures to stem the tide of the virus. As part of the plan, it pushed back the reopening date for high schools by one week due to a surge in novel coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations.
The decision to reopen schools has prompted worries among staff and teachers at Westmount High School in Montreal, who took to protesting outside the building.
Robert Green, a teacher at the school, says educators have “serious concerns” about returning to school as the weight of the pandemic and hospitalizations linked to the virus take a toll on the province’s health-care system.
“We want to be in the classroom with our students but we do not want to do that at the expense of human life,” he said.
The return to in-person learning is also weighing on students. Karen Beresford says her daughter was getting ready for class when she started to cry.
“I think we need the option to do online school,” she told Global News. “Honestly, my daughter feels so much more comfortable. She’s not feeling anxious — her teachers are there to support her.”
Quebec’s premier has defended the plan to send students back, however, calling it a “calculated risk” last week. François Legault said that he believes the disadvantages of keeping schools closed outweigh the benefits.
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Dr. Brent Richard, an epidemiologist and professor at McGill University, supports the government’s decision to reopen schools. He says transmission of COVID-19 “from teacher to students and other students is much lower than what you would expect among older people.”
Students in Quebec “have already suffered tremendously with respect to a decrease in education,” he added.
“Enabling them to go back to school is one of the safest parts of our society,” he said. “I am strongly in favour.”
But Green says teachers at Westmount High School feel “sick to their stomach for what the return to school will mean for the health-care system.”
Deborah Fairchild, who also teaches at the school, expressed similar concerns about the evolving second wave’s effects on hospitals.
“We’re on the brink of a catastrophe,” she said. “This is not the time to say children need to socialize.”
With the return to class, Quebec is providing each student two masks per day since they are required to don procedural masks inside high school buildings.
The province has also introduced new measures to help students during the health crisis, including cancelling ministerial exams and launching a tutorial program. It is also providing computers or tablets to students who need them and additional resources for learning and mental health.
— With files from The Canadian Press