Parents want clear directives from province leaders
By Avleen K Mokha
Quebec is the one the worst hit provinces in Canada, with COVID-19 cases beyond 30,000. Still, the province announced the gradual reopening schools end of April, despite a daily rise in cases of 900 cases. In the days following this announcement, provincial officials received significant criticism from members of the public. Parents, school staff, and schoolboards feel that reopening this summer creates more issues than it solves.
Central to the debate are doubts about schools’ ability to reopen safely and equitably. This feature story gives a comprehensive look at the hard questions that have come up during the discussion on reopening schools.
The main timeline
On April 27, Minister of Education Jean-François Roberge detailed Quebec’s plan to gradually re-open schools. Key dates from his briefing were:
- By May 11, elementary schools and daycares outside Greater Montreal will reopen;
- By May 19, elementary schools and daycares in Greater Montreal will reopen;
- High schools, CEGEPs, universities will not open till at least the end of August.
Ten days later, on May 7, Quebec Premier François Legault pushed the reopening date for elementary schools and daycares in Greater Montreal by a week.
“Today we’re seeing that the conditions to keep our initial reopening calendar in Montreal are not met, for the moment,” Legault said on May 7.
The infographic included with this story shows how the provincial response changed in a matter of few days. Once Roberge announced the reopening plan, the union of teachers in Quebec expressed concerns about the safety of teachers and school staff.
Quebec public health director Dr Horacio Arruda was present during the reopening announcement and said public health would work with the Ministry of Education to provide masks, if teachers wanted them. In the early weeks of the emergency, Dr Arruda said that face coverings can give a false sense of security. Since mid April, public health began “strongly recommending” people to wear face coverings, though they are still not mandatory.
When reopening was announced, Dr Arruda said masks will be required for situations where social distancing cannot be maintained, like for daycare workers. However, since then public pressure means that elementary school teachers will also wear masks.
Derrek Cauchi, principal of Sinclair Laird elementary school, placed an order for masks, based on estimates, a week after Roberge’s announcement on April 27.
A major stakeholder in this debate made headlines with a statement on May 1 in which they criticized the province’s reopening plan for being hasty. Quebec English Schoolboards’ Association (QESBA) represents nine schoolboards in Quebec.
“Rather than inspiring confidence in the public, this hastily announced plan by the government has had the effect of significantly raising anxiety and stress levels among teachers and parents in particular, as well as the general population,” the QESBA statement said. “This is clearly evidenced by a petition to delay school reopening until September, already signed by over a quarter of a million citizens.”
A public display of powerplay followed. On the COVID-19 press briefing on May 4, Legault pushed away criticism by saying schoolboards cannot stay closed – if they were not ready, they should get started.
“It’s not the schoolboards’ choice,” Legault said.
“It’s not the schoolboards’ choice,” Legault said on the May 4 press briefing. “It’s the parents’ choice.”
When pressed about QESBA’s statement, Legault said that schoolboards “still” have two weeks. Just two days later, Legault postponed reopening schools in Greater Montreal.
“The switch up of dates has been really stressful,” Joanna Peters, parent of two, said.
Peters sits on the English Montreal School Board Parents’ Committee (EMSB), which supported QESBA’s statement.
“I felt happy that somebody stood up for what seemed to be obvious.”
The economic incentive
The week the province announced schools would reopen, officials also announced that retail businesses and certain non-essential services would reopen. For many parents, being able to send their young children to school or daycare lets them return to work. Given that the pandemic has caused a record rise in unemployment, reopening schools and daycares might be the silver lining parents need.
Putting aside schools and daycares, parents turn to family members or babysitters. But here also communication felt mixed.
Previously Dr Arruda had said grandparents can work in daycares with children but not watch their grandchildren because these are different relationships. Dr Arruda has since changed his view, by saying that grandparents under 70 that are otherwise healthy can start watching their grandchildren.
“It’s a big relief for parents, but not all parents that their grandparents in this country or in this province,” chair of EMSB Parents’ Committee Caroline Phaneuf said.
Push for schoolwork
Roberge said parents will not be required to send their children to school, but admitted a greater push for children.
“Teachers and students are not on vacation,” Roberge said on April 27. “Now, we are being more demanding.”
However, parents and principals doubt that reopening schools will help children that were already struggling.
“All our effort to reopen school would be better spent serving online platform and focus on children with special needs, with depression, and with domestic issues,” Peters said.
Principal Cauchi doubts that significant changes to grades will happen.
“I’m not convinced that children are being put at the forefront of this discussion.”
“I’m not convinced that children are being put at the forefront of this discussion. We were told the year is over. So there’s not much incentive from the grading perspective.”
Roberge had also stressed in his briefing that parents should be “facilitators” instead of being teachers. Peters says that parents of children that were struggling will only struggle more with a hasty reopening.
“Parents just can’t do it all,” Peters said. “We’re running after children, we may have parents to take care of. We’re disinfecting groceries and laundry, we’re cooking at home more than usual, just trying to fit it all in is hard.”
“Parents just can’t do it all.”
Challenges with reopening
Can social distancing be enforced at school? How?
Some ways schools will enforce social distancing include:
- Putting marks on the floor to help children keep distance
- Having a maximum of 15 students per classroom, half of the usual limit for elementary school
- Rotating recess breaks to limit children playing outside
- Taking more breaks for handwashing
- Monitoring children during group activities
But parents are concerned if social distancing is realistic for elementary schoolchildren.
“It’s already hard for children to not touch their classmates,” Sabrina Pagano, mother of a child at Carlyle Elementary school, said. “It’s hard enough to get them to sit down at their desks.”
“It’s hard enough to get them to sit down at their desks.”
Shortage of staff may be the biggest hurdle to making sure children can follow safety guidelines. Sinclair Laid Elementary has 1 teacher for every 20 students. Fewer teachers will come back because some have serious health concerns; others will stay at home because they are at-risk for complications if they got COVID-19 of past conditions like cancer.
How will children be assessed? Starting when?
Schools will separate an optional and non-optional period for assessment. The period from March 12, when the COVID-19 emergency began, to April 27, is confirmed to be optional. Presumably, once robust online learning can be provided, a non-optional assessment will begin.
The start of a non-optional period has not been announced as of this week.
It’s not clear how children will be assessed. Teachers are told to follow up with families, and possibly they will monitor progress more closely.
“Sometimes you can’t prove what their child did even if they worked all day,” Peters said, referring to activities like conjugating verbs online. “Parents of students at risk of failing need to know how much they can show there has been effort to learn at home.”
“Parents of students at risk of failing need to know how much they can show there has been effort to learn at home.”
The assessment period will end Jean-Baptiste Holiday, June 21. Contracts for school workers end July 1.
As a principal Cauchi says the number of staff members depend on the number of students that parents send.
“Numbers of parents need to be such it warrants calling people to work,” Cauchi said. “If I have children in the school, I can’t order my whole staff. No [minimum] number [of students] has been given to me, but I may get different instructions closed to the reopening date.”
What happens if someone in the school gets COVID-19?
Principals receive protocols from the Education Ministry. “The release talks about having an isolation space,” Cauchi said. But the province has not yet said if schools will close again if an outbreak takes place.
What about school busses?
School busses will a vacant bench behind and in front of each child. This rule means fewer children can get on the bus, and multiple trips might be needed. A school of 200 elementary students, Sinclair Laird hires two school busses. Multiple trips may work for smaller territories like Park Extension but may not be realistic for bigger neighbourhoods.
“Some busses drive 45 minutes,” Phaneuf said. “If there are multiple trips, does this mean some kids will reach school three hours late?”
Busses will install plexiglass barriers for the safety of drivers, many of whom are older. They may wipe or disinfect seats between runs. However, many schools share busses, meaning bus drivers visit multiple neighbourhoods.
Parents may find it easier to walk or drive their children to school.
What about children with special needs?
Some children with special needs take smaller vans, which cannot seat multiple children while keeping a 2-meter distance. Pagano shares the frustration of such families in her friend group.
“They are outraged. They feel like their children are like lab rats and guinea pigs for an experiment.”
“They feel like their children are like lab rats and guinea pigs for an experiment.”
Others think seeing friends will help children cope.
“Kids get depressed when they are isolated,” Peters said. “It’s discouraging to not get that connection and not know when things will end.”
Depending on the child’s kind of needs, sending them back can be a big impediment. For example, children on the autism spectrum (ASD) rely on routines. Abrupt changes can cause meltdowns, making it difficult to adjust to new distancing rules or to learn from teachers they haven’t met before.
Province has stressed that coming out of the COVID-19 emergency needs to happen in stages.
“The idea is to not precipitate anything, but to proceed gradually,” Legault said on April 22.
“The key criteria is health. I want everyone to feel safe. I don’t think it would be a good idea to wait until September 1 to return one million children to schools.”
In this way, reopening on the 25th functions as a trial run for September. However, parents feel unconvinced that the reopening should take place before the end of this month. Between April 28 to May 4, English Parents’ Committee Association (EPCA) conducted a survey among 3,381 families to get a better understanding of the parental needs for the reopening of schools. Parents that took the survey answered no to the question, “Will you be sending your child(ren) back to school?” at each of the nine schoolboards EPCA represents.
International organizations suggest proceeding with caution. The World Health Organization recommends that countries expand health care systems, ramp up testing, identify every case and refocus the government on suppressing and controlling the spread of the virus.
“The last thing any country needs is to open schools and businesses, only to be forced to close them again because of a resurgence,” WHO Director General said.
“The last thing any country needs is to open schools and businesses, only to be forced to close them again because of a resurgence,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press briefing on March 25.
A version of this story was published in print for Park Extension News May 15 issue. Click here to read the full issue.