Quebec schools reopen Omicron

Petition asks Quebec govt. to stop pretending schools can reopen safely

“As a parent, a school employee, a citizen, I want to be able to look back on this and tell my kids that I tried to keep them safe with the tools that I had.”

When Quebec schools reopen for in-person learning on Jan. 17, many parents and school staff worry it won’t be happening in a safe manner. Some are so concerned they’re petitioning for additional safety measures — and urging the government to keep schools closed if they can’t deliver on them. 

“COVID is going to rip through our schools like wildfire,” says ‘Valerie’ who agreed to speak with me on condition of anonymity. A mother of two young children, she works as a school attendant with children who have behavioural issues. “Safety protocols just aren’t there.”

As the co-author of the petition, she says she wants the government to simply “acknowledge the science” and give them the proper tools to protect the children and school staff. “We’re asking for the bare minimum,” she says. “I’m not even asking for them to give us N95 masks; I’m simply asking to be allowed to wear them. That’s how low the bar is right now.”

Schools drive community transmission 

Parents have reason to be concerned. During COVID’s second wave, and despite initial denials by the government, experts concluded Quebec’s schools were the driving force behind most community transmission. This was before Omicron, a variant proven to be far more contagious than Delta. A cursory look at New York City, where school officials tried to keep them open during this latest wave, quickly shows the devastating results. Omicron has exploded citywide in schools and cases are through the roof — a situation that our healthcare system, stretched to its limits, can ill afford. 

Josiane Cossette, a mom of two and the president of the governing board of her children’s elementary school, wrote an opinion letter imploring the Quebec government to heed the warnings. “On December 22, there were nearly 30,000 [COVID] cases in schools, compared to some 50,000 for the whole of 2020–2021,” she writes. On Twitter, she reminded the government that before the Christmas holidays, Quebec schools were averaging 1,500 cases per day, while the positivity rate was 10%. Last week, it was hovering between 24.5% and 19%. “In an ideal world, schools would reopen on Jan. 17,” she writes. “But in reality, reopening them would be catastrophic.”

The petition implores the Quebec government to adopt evidence-based policies to minimize community transmission, urges public health to minimize aerosol transmission in schools and improve ventilation, to allow students and staff to wear N95 masks if they so choose to, distribute sufficient rapid tests to students and staff to allow them to screen themselves regularly, formulate a contingency plan to maintain school operations in case of staff shortages, and implement these measures in an equitable fashion that considers the needs of all Quebecers. 

Cheryl Cooperman, a mother of two elementary-school students and co-author of the petition, is tired of the gaslighting.  

“It’s been two years that we’ve been dealing with this yo-yo situation of opening and closing schools,” she says. “I don’t trust the government or public health because they refuse to listen to science. They had lots of time to implement safety measures, but they never seem to be proactive.”

Where do we stand a week before schools open? 

First the positive news delivered by Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge during last week’s presser. Millions of rapid tests are on their way from the federal government, and this time the Quebec government says it will be easier to get our hands on one. Elementary and preschool students will be prioritized and given the tests at school. Teachers have also been added to the list of people with access to PCR tests. Quebec will also install 90,000 air-quality monitors in classrooms across the province. 

Now, the criticism. It’s simply not enough, say those on the frontlines, and Quebec’s opposition parties have also called out these half-measures for being inadequate to tackle a variant that has far more transmissibility. At last count, Quebec had reported 6,176 new cases, bringing the total number of people infected to 712,358; 27 new deaths, for a total of 11,873 deaths; and 2,133 hospitalizations. There’s nothing “mild” about this wave.

Province-wide, we can’t afford missteps. Hospitals are, once again, at the breaking point. CHSLDs and seniors’ homes are dealing with major outbreaks and thousands of new cases. We’re missing 20,000 healthcare workers to burnout and COVID. We’re currently out of rapid tests and much-more-accurate PCR tests are now only available to a select few. And while most of the global scientific community seems to agree that N95 masks and HEPA filters are required to fight off the much-more-transmissible Omicron variant, Quebec’s public health director stubbornly insists that surgical masks are adequate for the job. 

“Ontario will be equipping school staff with N95 masks,” says Valerie. “Have you seen the cheap masks they hand out in schools here? Kids wear them as best as they can, but they’re the cheapest masks you can buy, they fit badly, they fall apart, kids crumple them up during lunch, and yet they’re only entitled to one mask per day,” she says. “I’m constantly handing out new masks. Now Roberge announced that we’ll be getting two new masks per day, like we’re saved!” 

The government’s insistence on CO2 monitors for classroom air filtration, despite the federal government sending $432-million to equip schools with better ventilation, is also a major source of criticism. While the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and Harvard University’s Healthy Buildings program all recommend “air purifiers with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, designed to capture roughly 99% of airborne particles,” Quebec’s position is that studies don’t clearly demonstrate that they’re efficient in limiting transmission. 

“We’re always 10 steps behind the science,” says Valerie. “First they refuse to acknowledge COVID is airborne, then they sat on rapid tests, now they continue to deny HEPA filters are better, even dismissing low-cost DIY filter options recommended by air-quality experts, known as the Corsi-Rosenthal Box

Another issue Valerie has is with the removal of class bubbles, which was standard practice during the second wave, but was eliminated at the start of the new school year. “Before, one group of kids had one teacher,” she says. “Now, I’m spread out over seven classes, which increases my risk and the classes’ risk seven-fold — and this during Omicron.” 

Omicron isn’t ‘mild’ 

As a parent, Cooperman resents that the government repeatedly tries to downplay the severity of COVID on children. “This whole narrative around kids… at first it was how they don’t get COVID, then they don’t get sick if they do get it, or that it’s not severe if they’re sick, that Omicron is now milder. We don’t know what the long-term effects are. We should be protecting them. I also care about my kids’ teachers. I worry about their health and their stress levels, too.”

While the science on COVID continues to evolve daily, so far what the medical community seems to be sharing is that hospitalizations among children in Quebec have multiplied by 10 (even though stays appear to be short) and new studies indicate COVID may raise the risk of diabetes in children. Letting Omicron infect kids (or adults, for that matter) while we still don’t have all the data on how serious it can be or how long-term the effects are does not appear to be the best course of action. Regardless of its severity, school outbreaks will only serve to tax an already overburdened healthcare system that’s currently resorting to postponing potentially life-saving surgeries to alleviate pressure on it. The collateral damage of letting COVID outbreaks run unfettered is hard to estimate. 

Cooperman doesn’t understand how the government plans to maintain low community transmission and limit outbreaks in schools, when Omicron is far more transmissible, yet children and staff are not allowed to wear N95 masks for their own protection and HEPA filters can’t be installed in classrooms. 

“CO2 monitors just measure air quality, they don’t filter or improve the air quality, so what exactly are they doing?” she asks. Worried the government’s measures weren’t enough, many English-language school boards bought their own air purifiers for classrooms last year. The province has since refused to reimburse their cost and denied that it was necessary to do the same for most French-language classrooms. 

“It’s just an impossible situation,” says Cooperman. “As parents, we’re constantly kept in the dark while we try to make the best decision for our children.” She says she’s grateful for citizen initiatives like Olivier Drouin, known for his COVID Écoles Québec website where he’s been tirelessly recording school outbreaks across the province for the past two years. He’s now also recording positive rapid test results for those concerned they might need future proof of infection for their own purposes and since INSPQ daily data excludes these numbers, running the risk that Quebec is grossly underestimating COVID cases. 

Whose mental health? 

Cooperman is tired of the government repeating that schools reopening is best for their children’s mental health. “I’m not undermining legitimate mental-health concerns, but I think we need to stop using mental health as an excuse to send kids into an unsafe environment,” she says. “This constant opening and closing, this uncertainty, being sent to school and then abruptly being pulled out, parents trying to find daycare at the very last minute, it’s chaotic… do they think this is good for children’s mental health? It’s extremely anxiety-provoking — for everyone involved. Kids needs stability and consistency. Reopening schools while COVID is still raging is not a panacea or ‘returning to normal.’” 

A week before schools open their doors for in-person learning, both women admit that morale is low and stress levels are high. The petition is both an outlet for their frustration and a last-ditch resort to get the government to listen to their concerns. Do they believe it will reap any results? 

“As a parent, a school employee, a citizen, I want to be able to look back on this and tell my kids that I tried to keep them safe with the tools that I had,” says Valerie. “But I don’t have a whole lot of faith that the government cares what citizens have to say. They’ve proven to be very unwilling to admit mistakes. Unless it’s coming from a Léger poll, I’m not sure they’re listening.” ■

To sign the petition, please click here.

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.