Quebec schools

Re-opening Quebec schools is gambling with people’s lives

“Whose kid do you want to volunteer as tribute in this optimistic version of the Hunger Games?”

On Monday, Premier François Legault and Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced that Quebec elementary schools and daycares will be re-opening on May 11. [Ed.’s note: The announcement that Quebec retail stores outside Montreal will reopen on May 4, and on May 11 in Montreal, was made shortly after this column was published.] High-schools, CEGEPS and universities will stay closed until the fall. In sharp contrast, Ontario has extended public school closures until at least May 30, perhaps even longer.

In Montreal, where nearly 1,000 people have died from COVID-19 and over 12,000 have been infected so far, elementary schools will re-open a week later than those in the rest of Quebec — on May 19. Some teachers have been notified that they are to report to work on May 4. That’s in… five days. Rest assured, our government tells us, classes will be limited to 15 students per classroom and parents can choose to keep their children at home if they want to. Oh, okay.

Parents and teachers are scared

A quick word from the ground: absolutely NO ONE is reassured. If anything, most of the parents and teachers I spoke to have been utterly consumed by this issue. They are scared, confused and angry.

There are concrete reasons for this major public ambivalence. The numbers, for starters.

The announcement was made just as Quebec was inching ahead of the U.S. on the unenviable list of places where COVID-19 kills the most. With 188 deaths per million residents, if Quebec were a country, it would have now climbed to 10th place in world rankings.I don’t know about you, but this isn’t an area I want us to be excelling in.

And while many have argued that Quebec counts cases differently, the total number of deaths and the daily stats of confirmed cases have hardly slowed down enough for most people to feel comfortable about going back to normal, whatever that is these days.

Some quick disclaimers to pre-empt the worst of the criticism. Even though I have my long-standing issues with the CAQ, I also don’t believe that any of the public servants we see working tirelessly through this unprecedented pandemic would willingly and knowingly put Quebecers in harm’s way. I think it’s too cynical and unfair to ascribe malicious intent here. They, too, are parents and grandparents, and human beings.

They are making tough decisions weighing many variables and trying to do the best with what they have in terms of ever-fluid information right now. I know of parents, like Noah Sidel, a dad of three, who told me that, he “literally started to tear up thinking about how badly [his] kids miss and need the structure and social aspect of a school. Even he admitted, however, that there are no easy answers and he’s still concerned for many reasons.

There have also been plenty of child psychologists who have spoken to the need of children to get back to their routines and start interacting with other kids. Social workers have also reminded us that for many children, home is not a safe space. Many kids are experiencing domestic violence, many rely on school lunches and others don’t have access to computers, the internet or a nice big backyard to play. The issue is far from black and white. It is complex and confusing. The government has clearly stated the decision to send kids back to school is not mandatory and that they will revise as needed, if the situation on the ground changes.

Too many unknowns

Here’s the problem, though. The situation on the ground is always changing. Sure, the overwhelming cases of COVID-19 have occurred in Quebec’s nursing homes and seniors’ residences. But if you look at the daily stats, you’ll see that community transmission is alive and well and in certain parts of Montreal still dangerously high. And despite the government’s promises that we will be ramping up testing, there is no sign of that so far.

Dr. Claire Trottier, who is an assistant professor working as an education specialist in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at McGill, wrote a lengthy Facebook post explaining why she would not send her child to school. In her post, she explains that in Montreal we have dismal contact tracing and that we do not have good data on community transmission right now.

“All this means is that we are flying blind,” she says in her post. Basically, all certain areas need is a lit match in the form of a small outbreak and we’re up in flames again. Pretending that we have things “under control” just so we can go back to work could be reckless.

Every single day, a new medical report reveals something new about how and who this virus attacks. We still know so little about who is vulnerable, whether immunity is permanently attained and whether healthy adults and children are also at high risk. There is simply too much we don’t know about it to pretend that everything is under control and that “life needs to continue,” as Legault stated during the presser.

A glorified babysitting service

Cheryl Villeneuve, a Verdun elementary school teacher with the Lester B. Pearson School Board, and a mother of two young girls, minces no words when asked about the government’s decision.

“This is a glorified babysitting service,” she says. “There will be no teaching. We’ll just be monitoring these kids and keeping them apart all day.”

Villeneuve doesn’t understand why the government didn’t decide to gradually open society up first this spring and summer — parks, playgrounds, stores, libraries — and see what the numbers would look like after and whether quick contagion would occur.

“We just decided to put a bunch of kids who haven’t been out in this new world with new rules suddenly together and expect this will work?” she asks. “I don’t think the government has a basic understanding of children. Do they know what kids do innately?”

Villeneuve’s Verdun school has a high ratio of special-needs children, the ones, she says, who have no real boundaries, and who keep putting their hands in their mouths and up their noses.

“What am I going to be doing? Yelling at kids all day to keep apart and they won’t even understand me if I’m wearing a mask?” she asks, exasperated.

While it’s technically accurate that most of Quebec’s COVID-19 deaths have occurred in CHSLDs and seniors residences, saying that children are immune or low-risk doesn’t mean much. Quebec children won’t go back to their schools in a bubble. They will be taught by adults and will go home to adults. Many of those adults (teachers are an overwhelmingly female workforce) could be high-risk or primary caretakers for parents who are high-risk. How are we mitigating the inherent dangers of such a plan?

“We already have a teachers’ shortage in Quebec schools,” says Villeneuve. “If we all get sick, no one will be teaching your kids in September!”

The ethics and logistics of it all

The government’s reassurance that hospitals can now handle an overload of COVID-19 patients because the plateau has been reached is not that reassuring either. Isn’t that just an admission that infections will increase and that we are willingly choosing to treat elementary school children and their families as guinea pigs of sorts, hoping the benefits inevitably outweigh any of the risks? Is that an ethical plan? One can rationally and unemotionally sit down and calculate the personal risks on a population chart, but on a personal “here’s my kid Timmy” level, whose kid do you want to volunteer as tribute in this optimistic version of the Hunger Games? 

Working at a school with many students who come from homes with cases of verbal and emotional violence, Villeneuve says she’s concerned about children stuck at home and how this trauma will affect them later in their lives. But she also fears that the government hasn’t thought through the logistics of such a quick return.

In her school, with 15 children per class, the classrooms are far too small to maintain the two-metre distancing rule. She has concerns about morning entry to school and bus scheduling. None of the announced plans have reassured her so far.

“We will have staff not coming in for very valid reasons — if they are high-risk or if they have children or other family members who are at high risk — and we may have far more children showing up than the government expects. For an administrator this is going to be a logistical nightmare. Once unions and boards get involved, this plan may very well be amended.”

Villeneuve worries that the decision to re-open is based on financial reasons and just a way for people to get back to work. She feels that adding more essential daycares would have been a better solution. She also doesn’t understand why Quebec seems to be the province assuming such a gamble.

“Quebec already has the highest numbers in the country, why are we the ones opening schools first?” she says.

It’s a question being asked by many in the absence of any real benchmarks. British Columbia, a province that seems to have COVID-19 far better under control right now, is still pondering when to re-open its schools.

While it’s very possible that the plan for schools may change, one can only wonder if Quebec politicians are prepared to live with the consequences of unnecessary future COVID-19 outbreaks and a potential rise in deaths in a much younger population if their gamble backfires.

“This feels like one giant chicken pox party, where we’re throwing the kids in there so they can infect each other,” says Villeneuve. “Only with a much deadlier virus we know little about.” ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.

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