MONTREAL -- If too many teachers are out sick with COVID-19, parents may be asked to supervise the classroom in their place, according to a document sent to schools by Quebec’s education ministry.

“The ministry and the school network foresee that a very large number of employees, all job categories combined, will have to isolate themselves for a few days in the coming weeks,” reads the document, which has been translated from French.

The documents show the province is ordering schools, which are scheduled to reopen on Jan. 17, to develop a contingency plan in the case of low personnel, which could include listing people such as parents to be called in as reinforcement.

In a press conference Thursday, authorities said asking parents for help will be a last resort and said they wouldn't be asking parents to teach, just to provide extra supervision.

"It's possible that there'll be closed classrooms as a last resort and... some people have become worried about the fact that we had mentioned that we might even call parents," said Education Minister Jean-François Roberge.

"But I want to, you know -- it's not like we're asking parents to become teachers. I just want to clear that up," he said.

"As a last resort, it's possible that temporarily, a parent might just come and keep an eye on the classroom."

He and other speakers outlined a return to school with no other major changes to what's already been described, whether in ventilation, teachers' masks or other measures, though they say they'll try to reach more children with vaccines.

Another distinction between teachers and parents will be the application of Bill 21. While teachers are barred from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs, kippahs and crosses, that rule wont apply to parent supervisors. 

Students have been working remotely since the end of winter break.

According to the ministry documents, contingency plans could also include having teachers work from home via video conference while students are supervised in-person by volunteers, according to the document.

Alternatively, workers such as resource teachers could be required to step away from their usual duties to help fill the gaps.

Another approach is merging two classes together, to be instructed by one teacher.

“Ideally, students should remain in two separate rooms to avoid potential contagion,” the document explains. “The two people (teacher and other resource) [would] move from one room to the other.”

Daycares have been asked to develop contingency plans as well.

'VERY IMPORTANT FOR KIDS TO SEE THEIR FRIENDS': LEGAULT

During Thursday's news conference, Roberge said that absences are a given, but he confirmed that calling on parents isn't the only option.

"We can expect that unfortunately, there will sometimes be, you know, a bus driver that has to be removed, a teacher or staff members," he said.

"What will we do? We'll go towards replacement people. We'll do remote teaching. We also have a decree that allows [us] to assign, you know... for example, former teachers, we may ask them to come and help to get through that crisis."

He also called for parents' understanding in the next little while.

"The upcoming weeks will not be perfect. They're going to require adjustments," he said.

Premier François Legault repeated that the Jan. 17 date is now certain and said that it's "very important for kids to see their friends," and that remote schooling is not a good option.

He and other authorities speaking Thursday announced no other major changes to the school plan, saying they still consider their previous plans to be safe enough.

Children will be required to wear a mask and will be given rapid tests to take home, Legault repeated -- both measures announced earlier. 

The self-isolation period after a COVID-19 case in a classroom will now be five days, Legault said, saying this "will be enough."

In a brief mention, Legault said the public health authorities, including the new public health director, Dr. Luc Boileau, say the ventilation level in the province's schools is safe.

He also said the province will ramp up attempts to increase the vaccination level among kids aged five to 11, who are only at 60 per cent coverage right now.

"I think that once we go back next week, we have to make sure that we have every single effort made," he said.

"That means to say it may not be at school itself, but we'll do everything so that children have access to vaccination. And that's even more the case in certain regions," Legault said.

HEALTH RISK TO CHILDREN IS LOW, AUTHORITIES INSIST

He asked parents not to be too concerned about their kids getting sick at school.

"I know that some parents and teachers might be worried, but Omicron has less effect on children, especially when they are vaccinated," Legault said.

In fact, hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 have been rising in Quebec over the last few weeks, but many of these young patients do have mild cases and were admitted with other problems before being found to be positive for COVID-19. 

Legault didn't elaborate, but later Boileau said that the children in hospital are mostly not severe cases.

"Children do not have a high risk of developing serious infections that bring them to hospitalization," Boileau said. "It is not a situation that is negative for children," he added, though "there are risks -- I mean, that's not possible to have zero risk."

Boileau also claimed there's no evidence that school outbreaks lead to wider community spread of the virus.

"It has not yet been shown, whether here or elsewhere, that in a school setting, in the context of COVID... that will accentuate the progression of outbreaks and contamination in community," he said.

When asked, he said he agreed with the previous decision by former Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda and others not to provide teachers with N-95 masks, as some unions have requested.

"When I arrived, I made sure to be quite aware of all those things and to have an opinion based on science, the most rigorous and solid... science possible," he said. "The analysis that was made is that no, it wouldn't necessarily be safer" for teachers to wear N-95s.

For the most part, "in a school setting, there is no [reason] to believe that there would be any advantage to using that," he said.

However, some specialized schools involve different interactions with children and are more like "care centres" or a health-care setting, he said -- N-95 masks will be provided to teachers in those schools.

PRESSURE ON THE EDUCATION SYSTEM

Heidi Yetman, president of teacher’s union QPAT, says she’s “extremely worried” about the province’s advice for contingency plans. 

“I really think that what we’re doing here is throwing the education system into the fire,” she said.

While she said she agrees children need to return to school, Yetman is concerned that the short notice will put too much pressure on the both the health-care and education systems.

“It’s almost better to say ‘let’s stay closed for another week, until we get these plans in place, these contingency plans in place, until we see the numbers drop a little bit in the hospitals,’” she said.

Schools were instructed to develop contingency plans on Wednesday evening, less than a week before reopening.

“I’m not sure if this is the price we want to pay,” Yetman said.

Another teachers' union group, the Federation autonome de l’enseignement (FAE) said in a statement they agree.

“The decisions made by Premier Legault do not ensure the safety of teachers and their students,” says a press release from the organization, which represents a group of nine teacher’s unions.

The issue of air quality is not being adequately addressed, the FAE argues, adding that the refusal to make N-95 masks available to teachers is “unjustified.”

“In a context where air quality is poor in many classrooms, the health-care system is on the verge of collapse and daily infection data is underestimated, the Legault government is choosing to be willfully blind,” the release said.

LISTEN ON CJAD 800 RADIO: Pediatricians react to kids heading back to class on Monday

'BIG EXHAUSTION' AMONG PARENTS

Legault acknowledged that Quebec parents, and other citizens, are in the midst of "a big fatigue" right now, but he said good pandemic news seems to be around the corner, announcing in the same press conference that the 10 p.m. curfew will end Monday.

The peak of the Omicron wave is arriving, and soon, he said.

"The good news is that the measures we put in place at the end of December, all the sacrifices Quebecers made, they had a result," he said.

"We finally see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Quebec isn't there yet, he warned -- while new cases are peaking now, hospitalizations are still rising, and the coming weekend could be the hardest of this wave. But afterwards, cases are expected to fall, based on public health predictions, he said.

LISTEN ON CJAD 800 RADIO: Parents to help out teachers in classrooms? Tom Mulcair with his thoughts


--With files from CTV's Kelly Greig