Quebec is officially making masks mandatory for all students in elementary schools in designated red zones when they return from March break in a bid to contain the novel coronavirus and variants.
The province made the official announcement Thursday after the news began circulating Wednesday as the break for schools looms.
Dr. Horacio Arruda, director of Quebec public health, described the measure as “preventive” to protect students, teachers and the community in regions that have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is a new thing in the equation of the disease in Quebec, which is the new variants, which are more transmissible,” he told reporters during a press conference in Montreal.
Arruda said requiring masks for all elementary school students in red zones will also “lower the risk of outbreaks.”
“Given the advice from our experts, we decided to green-light this and go forward,” he said about the measure.
Under the plan, students in grades 1 through 6 will wear pediatric procedural masks at all times inside classrooms and on school transport in areas on high alert. This includes the province’s two largest cities, Montreal and Quebec City.
The new rule comes into effect on March 8. The pediatric procedural masks will be provided by the government.
In orange zones, however, masks will only remain obligatory for students in grades 5 and 6.
On Wednesday, Montreal’s public health director mentioned tightened restrictions to guard against the spread of COVID-19 were expected as infections of the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the U.K., surfaced in city schools and daycares.
Dr. Mylène Drouin said 40 per cent of cases linked to variants in Montreal involve children, with another 20 per cent involving people in their mid-30s to mid-40s, believed to be parents of young children.
In Montreal, there have been 22 outbreaks linked to variants — some of which have already ended — since January. The outbreaks have mostly been in schools and daycares, which have seen 11 and six outbreaks, respectively.
As of Feb. 23, there were 2,376 active COVID-19 cases in schools and the pandemic has closed 958 classrooms in Quebec. Eleven schools were listed as closed or partially closed.
New rule welcomed by Lester B. Pearson School Board
The Lester B. Pearson School Board is pleased about the move, saying in a statement that it has been “encouraging the wearing of face coverings by all students since the start of the school year.”
“Requiring all elementary school children to wear procedural masks at all times within the school and if they are using school bus transportation will add another layer of protection in terms of preventing the spread of COVID-19 in our schools and centres,” said Darren Becker, the board’s director of communications.
The English-language school board in Montreal says the province’s decision to make masks mandatory will complement other measures the board has taken during the pandemic, including closing cafeterias and installing air purifiers.
— With files from The Canadian Press