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Quebec Superior Court begins hearing final arguments in trial over at-home learning

The legal action is asking for parents' ability to decide whether to physically send their children to school or not during the COVID-19 crisis. AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

A lawsuit pitting Montreal parents against the Quebec government over at-home education began hearing final arguments in court on Thursday, as parents are asking for the right to choose amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The legal action, brought on by six plaintiffs represented by lawyer Julius Grey, is asking for parents’ ability to decide whether to physically send their children to school or not, asking for the right to opt for at-home learning.

“We are not contesting the opening of schools. We are contesting the right to chose — it should be up to each individual family,” Grey said during Thursday’s hearing in the Quebec Superior Court.

“It’s a matter of who has the right to chose what is best for their family.”

Read more: Quebec premier warns most lockdown measures to continue

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Grey argued that lower-income families will suffer due to smaller living spaces as well as relying on grandparents for childcare. Several of the plaintiffs in the case also have ill parents that they need to care for and are worried about transmitting the virus from their child.

The Quebec government is asking that parents keep children away from seniors, “but who has the right to make such decisions for families?” Grey asked the judge.

Currently, only students with medical conditions or at-risk family members living in their homes are permitted to learn at a distance full-time.

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The plaintiff’s arguments include section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”

Grey argued that Ontario has given parents the right to opt for at-home learning, asking why Quebec will not grant its population the same right.

“In other hard hit places like England and Spain and some parts of the U.S., schools are not even open. Last year we fully closed down schools to handle the pandemic,” Grey said. “Why is it so crucial now that all children must attend?”

Sarah Gibson, one of the lead plaintiffs in the case, said, “it’s about rights and families with vulnerabilities that didn’t make the cut, while others with similar issues did get medical exemptions.”

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She said a concern of parents is that school COVID-19 protocols are not what they need to be to prevent infection.

Gibson told Global News that with over 25,000 school related cases since the re-opening in August, the concern is valid.

Read more: Montreal mothers battle Quebec government in court over distance learning for children

“There are many families behind us, many teachers behind us, and more and more experts urging the government to provide remote learning as an option,” Gibson said. She added that it would be beneficial to all to reduce the number of children in classrooms.

Last week, expert witnesses called by Grey and his colleague, Vanessa Paliotti, included Dr. Marty Teltscher, a medical microbiologist from the Jewish General Hospital, who told the judge that children are “significant transmitters of viral infections — both among themselves and adults.”

Government lawyers Maryse Loranger and Stéphanie Garon defended the government’s current rules, saying that healthy children must go to school, and the current exemption requirement is fair.

Earlier this month, a study out of Université de Montréal, George Washington University and citizen-led initiative Covid Écoles Quebec made the case for keeping kids at home. Research conducted in Montreal between August and December 2020 found that schools are a strong vector of transmission of COVID-19 in the community.

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Premier François Legault has, however, continuously reiterated his position that sending kids to school is a calculated risk.

“I understand there’s a risk bringing kids back to schools,” Legault said in early January, “but we have to put into balance that there are other disadvantages to keeping them at home.”

Legault insisted that his government wants children to stay away from senior citizens who can get the virus from asymptomatic youth.

The government’s closing arguments will be heard in court on Friday.

Thursday’s daily COVID-19 numbers include 1,368 new cases, 39 more deaths and 1,264 patients in hospital for complications related to the virus — a number Legault said is too high.

The current total number of infected people in Quebec stands at to 258,698. COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 9,667 Quebecers to date.

— with files from Annabelle Olivier, Dan Spector and Phil Carpenter, Global News

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