MONTREAL -- Masks will be mandatory in classrooms for both elementary and high schools in nine regions of Quebec, including Montreal and Monteregie, Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said Tuesday.

"This is a measure that is preventive and prudent," said Roberge. "This is not a situation that is ideal. It is not something that we had hoped for at the beginning of the summer."

The other regions that will require masks at all times in schools are: Centre-du-Quebec, Outaouais, Laval, The Eastern Townships, Lanaudiere, the Lower Laurentians, and Mauricie.

The news comes as a relief for many parents.

"It’s a good thing and we’re really happy," said English Parents Committee Association President Kathy Korakakis. "Because of the variant and because of everything we’re hearing parents were really nervous about sending their kids back to school without having masks on."

In the other eight regions - Bas-Saint-Laurent, Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Côte-Nord, Nord-du-Québec, Gaspésie-Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Capitale-Nationale and Chaudière-Appalaches - students will be required to wear masks in common areas, on buses and while moving about the school.

"Our ultimate goal is to keep kids and avoiding closing classrooms," said Roberge.

The same rules will apply in adult vocational training programs and adult education. 

The announcement came following a meeting Monday between the minister and Quebec Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda.

Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT) president Heidi Yetman was pleased with the announcement and said that last year was very difficult for many educators.

"It’s better to go in strong and then to remove measures than to go in weak and start adding measures," she said. "One of the things our teachers told us about last year was the constant change in directives that was very difficult for them."

All other parts of the plan announced in June, including the elimination of classroom bubbles, remained in place, said Roberge. Field trips and after-school activities will also be back.

Students will not require vaccine passports to participate in sports or other activities at school. However, in inter-school competitions that include prolonged contact, a vaccine passport will be required.

This comes after both parents and school staff expressed concerns due to the recent rise in COVID-19 numbers because of the highly contagious Delta variant.

Sunday, the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) said it was considering making masks mandatory in classrooms from Grade 1 and up starting Sept. 1.

According to the EMSB, this caused a “tremendous amount of anxiety” among parent groups, prompting the school board to consider creating its own rules.

“The Delta variant and the fact that elementary school children cannot get vaccinated yet has everyone worried,” said EMSB Chair Joe Ortona. "The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over.".

Roberge said the ministry will work with public health to get as many students over 12 years old vaccinated.

He said there are no current plans for a mandatory vaccination mandate. 

Arruda explained that contract tracing will be done differently this year. A child who tests positive for COVID-19 will be removed from the classroom while everyone else stays in school, but will be tested over the course of the following week.

"We have adapted our protocols to have a risk management that will keep most of kids in school and not have to take off everybody in contact with cases," said Arruda.

RAPID TESTING

Roberge said that public health authorities are considering deploying rapid tests in primary and secondary schools in regions where the epidemiological situation is of greater concern. 

The rapid testing plan would be in addition to established testing practices.

"In specific schools in regions where transmission is higher and where there is a lower vaccination coverage and at a higher risk of outbreaks in schools, those [rapid testing kits] are going to be used in those specific situations to help people rapidly get back to class," said Arruda.

VENTILATION IMPROVEMENTS

Roberge said renovations continue throughout the school network on the ventilation systems that caused many issues over the past year.

"We did improve a lot of ventilation systems," said Roberge. "A lot of windows have been changed so they can be opened easily."

He said a report is forthcoming.