From boosting ventilation to designing distance ed, Quebecers say school plan lacks detail
MONTREAL -- The province may have scrapped the idea of separating classes into “bubbles” of six students, but many Quebec teachers and parents say they feel left in the lurch when it comes to planning the rest of the details, from functional windows to substitute teachers to distance education.
For teachers, considering their ongoing staff shortage, many worried about the stress coming their way, said Heidi Yetman, the head of the union for teachers in Quebec’s English schools.
“Even before the pandemic, teaching has always been a difficult profession and we always have teachers go on sick leaves on a regular basis,” she said.
“So now we add to this the pandemic.”
Education Minister Jean Francois Roberge gave an update on the province’s back-to-school plan on Monday. Among the changes, masks will now be mandatory for students in Grade 5 and up in common areas such as hallways, but not in the classroom itself.
With only three weeks to go until classes resume, Yetman says many of the rest of the logistics are being loaded onto school boards and service centres, and onto the schools themselves.
For example, they’ll need to organize where teachers will be assigned, not only based on classroom needs but also based on which teachers will face the highest health risks if they contract COVID-19.
Yetman says it could create an unfair playing field for teachers if the various boards and schools end up with completely different criteria for what exempts a teacher from working in the classroom.
There are also questions about the risk of substitute teachers moving between schools.
Given ongoing staff shortages, Yetman says some substitutes could be replacing teachers in as many as 10 different classrooms and she wonders how the ministry plans to limit potential virus transmission between schools.
But one of the biggest worries facing both teachers and parents is figuring out how to run distance education online in the long term—because many of them expect to be relying on it at some point, by choice or necessity.
CHOOSING TO STAY HOME
Many parents said they’re scared and disappointed by what the education minister outlined today.
One parent group is looking at legal options over having to send their children back to school, saying families should have the right to choose whether to keep their kids at home.
For now, only students with serious health concerns or who live with family members who are vulnerable to COVID-19 qualify for a medical exemption from being in class.
A doctor’s note is required, but some parents say they should be allowed to weigh the risks themselves, as is the case in a few other provinces.
“That’s what Ontario is doing, is saying ‘Hey parents, we think you’re probably best placed to decide what’s right for you and your family so we’re giving you the option,’” said parent Sarah Gibson.
“[It’s] the same thing in a sense in British Columbia. Why is Quebec taking this sort of paternalistic ‘We’ll tell you what’s best’ point of view?’” she asked.
“I’m really disappointed with the CAQ. I find it arrogant.”
Roberge said some clarifications are still to come about the remote-learning exemption.
Right now, however, with the vast majority of children appearing to be required to show up in classrooms, one school board chairman says the condition of those classrooms won’t necessarily live up to what the province seems to expect.
“The public health guidelines say schools should have good ventilation,” said Michael Murray of the Eastern Townships School Board.
“Schools don’t have good ventilation,” he said. “Windows don’t open. So we cannot comply with many of the guidelines that have been issued.”
The province needs to be moving, fast, on coming up with solid distance education plans, say many parents.
It shouldn’t be left up to the individual boards or service centres to come up with their own plans and systems for it, say critics, both parents and teachers.
The quality of distance education is parents’ biggest worry right now, said Corinne Payne, the president of the Federation of Quebec School Board Parents’ Committees.
“What needs to be put in place to ensure that our children [can] learn from home, be it because they have a health exemption or because there’s an outbreak in their school or their class—there’s going to be more details around the support that’s going to be in place for that,” she said.
“Our parents have said since the beginning of the COVID crisis in March, that was their biggest concern, having that support.”
In a news release Monday evening, the English Montreal School Board said it was laying groundwork for remote classes.
"Online learning will also be implemented immediately for a class or a school in the event of a case of COVID-19," the board wrote.
"The EMSB Human Resources Department will take the necessary measures to ensure that staff are available for this purpose."