Masks will be mandatory for Quebec students in Grade 5 and up -- but not in the classroom
MONTREAL -- Students in Grade 5 and up will be required to wear masks in common areas when Quebecers return to school in three weeks.
Quebec Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge made the announcement as he provided an update for the back-to-school plan in the province on Monday afternoon.
"Our children and our health are our most precious things. Our government does not intend to compromise on these issues," said Roberge, adding that "closing schools is not protecting children," and that the province is "able to reconcile schooling and safety."
Masks will be mandatory for students from Grade 5 and up, including in higher education. The masks will need to be worn in hallways, amphitheatres, on school buses and common areas, but not in the classroom.
Parents will be required to supply masks for their children, but teachers will have masks provided for them. Community organizations will help families who need financial help to receive masks.
Students in elementary and high school will also stay in "bubbles" in their classrooms, and teachers will change rooms, as opposed to moving students throughout the school.
Government officials previously floated the idea of six-person groups as "bubbles" but changed course on Monday, saying no longer requires classes be divided into small sub-groups. The "bubble" was broadened to encompass the whole class, which must remain in one place to minimize potential transmission.
Children will not be required to wear masks during outdoor recess. They will also not have to wear masks during recess indoors provided children are within the same "bubble."
Roberge said classes will begin in person in three weeks as planned.
EXCEPTION MADE WITH A DOCTOR'S NOTE
Exceptions for in-person classes will be made for students with serious health concerns, or for children who have family members with serious health concerns, in which case those families will be provided with a remote schooling option. A doctor's note will be required for this exemption.
Roberge said he guarantees that if a classroom or school is required to close due to a COVID-19 outbreak, students will still receive 15 hours of education per week, including dedicated time with a teacher.
Arruda pointed to schools outside the Montreal area that reopened in the spring, saying it did not lead to outbreaks.
Referring to it as a "fragile balance," Arruda said it will be impossible to prevent any outbreaks, the government is hoping to control any serious health consequences for students and staff.
As of Aug. 24, children 10 and up will be required to wear masks on public transportation, Arruda added.
Many people in the education sector reacted positively to the revised plan on Monday, welcoming the elimination of the six-student bubbles and the new mask requirements.
"Wearing a compulsory face covering will facilitate movement within the establishment," said Carl Ouellet, head of a Quebec association representing school management staff.
Helene Boudrages, head of an association representing Montreal school administrators, said she was satisfied with the remote learning option for students who have health issues.
"We welcome the fact that a minimum number of hours of distance education is provided for ... which will ensure equity," she said.
In an interview with CTV News on Monday evening, Roberge said that while providing the option for remote learning is "really important," the province still believes most children and teenagers should be in a physical classroom.
He said that staying home could hurt students' mental health and create an education gap.
"The best place to be if you are a kid or a teenger is at school," he said. "Going to school is mandatory from [age] six to 16, so it has to be an exception... you should have a real good reason."
He didn't provide much detail on how schools would be helped in their attempts to enforce all the rules, whether with mask-wearing among students or other guidelines.
"They have our full support," Roberge said. "We will continue to help them and to work with them."
He acknowledged that Quebec's ongoing teacher shortage may pose new problems come September but said there was no immediate solution to that.
The education minister made the announcement alongside Health Minister Christian Dube and Quebec Director of Public Health Horacio Arruda.
The updated plan was developed with public health officials, said Dube.
Dube said the situation has been evolving since the back-to-school plan was first released in June, adding that officials have much more information and knowledge now.
Families will receive a guide to help them follow the back-to-school guidelines. It will be sent to families in English and French, and anyone with questions can visit the dedicated government website or contact officials for more guidance at 1-877-844-4545.
-- With files from The Canadian Press