Quebec’s education minister is ordering English-language school boards in the Montreal area to return to full-time in-person learning for all high school students despite mounting concerns over the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jean-François Roberge told reporters Wednesday that the province has contacted school officials after some of them opted to keep a hybrid model of in-school and digital education for students in senior grades.
“The government sent them a letter yesterday afternoon, and we were pretty clear that each kid has the right to go to school every day,” he said Wednesday.
Some school boards have taken a staggered approach to the government’s decision to allow teenagers in Grades 9, 10 and 11 in designated pandemic red zones to physically attend class.
Both the English Montreal and the Lester B. Pearson school boards have welcomed students back to class in a systematic manner. Only students in Grade 9 (secondary 3) are back at their desks for all five days at both boards.
“All Lester B. Pearson high school students are scheduled to be in class full time as of April 7,” spokesperson Darren Becker wrote in an email.
“It is important to note there were no classes at the board this past Monday and Tuesday due to ped-days combined with the upcoming Easter weekend and an additional ped-day on April 6, all of which explain the full return to school date.”
The EMSB, meanwhile, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that the board “agreed to go forward” with the government’s plan to bring all students back “where possible.”
Chair Joe Ortona said the school board “is not taking a position against the government” but that restructuring classes and “creating new groups is not in line with recommendations from public health.”
“Most of our high schools will indeed return to full-time attendance, after careful review from the administration that all the health and safety protocols in effect can be respected” he said.
“We know that student mental health and connections with peers and teachers remain important and we have and will continue to take whatever measures necessary to ensure that students with emotional or physical needs will be met.”
The Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, located on the city’s north shore, has returned to a mixed learning model for senior students in six schools, citing safety concerns for staff and children.
Prior to the change, students in senior grades were alternating between digital and in-person learning as part of public health measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The government’s plan has not only prompted concern from administrators and teachers, but students as well.
On Tuesday, students at Westmount High School held a protest. They argue full-capacity classrooms pose “a serious danger” to their health and those in their immediate family.
Roberge said that he understands their trepidations, but that the decision wasn’t made lightly.
“I can understand that some parents, some teachers, some students, they have some fear, they have some anxiety. I think it’s normal because we are not in a normal situation, of course,” he said.
“But it’s really important to say that decisions are not taken easily. We made our decisions after discussions with our specialists, and we have to follow the guidelines of the national health authorities.”
Russell Copeman, executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association, said it doesn’t make sense to change a model that schools have been using since the fall with less than three months left in the school year.
Copeman said school boards found out about the return to full-time in-person learning less than a week before it was scheduled to take place and needed more time to prepare. He said school boards are also worried about the health impacts of a return to class when COVID-19 cases in Quebec are rising.
“It seems to us quite contradictory, the same week as the health minister announcing formally we’re in the third wave, the education minister announcing that everybody’s got to go back to in-person school learning,” he said.
— with files from Global News’ Brayden Jagger Haines and The Canadian PressView link »