MONTREAL — Quebec's updated back-to-school plan requires students in Grade 5 and up to wear masks in all common areas of school buildings, but not in the classroom.
Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge said Monday the government's new strategy does away with the six-student bubble concept it had announced in June and instead focuses on making communication between teachers and students as easy as possible.
"We want to preserve the ease of communication, face-to-face contact, facial expressions — these are important," Roberge told a news conference in Montreal. He added that health and education experts advised his office against making masks mandatory inside classrooms.
Roberge said each classroom will be its own bubble, and students will not be required to maintain a two-metre distance with their classmates.
There will be limited mixing between classes and in the event of an outbreak, parents will be advised and the affected classroom bubble will be sent home to continue studies remotely.
In Ontario, the government has made mask-wearing mandatory in the classroom for students in Grades 4 through 12, but Quebec's public health director said children would likely have a hard time following that rule.
"For kids ... we (will) organize schools in a different way with classes that are going to be closed — not mixing with others too much," said Dr. Horacio Arruda on Monday. "Wearing a mask is difficult for an adult, so imagine for kids."
And while all elementary and high school students will be expected to return to school at the end of the month, children who have a doctor's note to suggest they're at high risk of COVID-19 complications or who live with someone at risk, will be granted an exemption and offered a remote learning service.
The province is also maintaining an option for students in Grades 10 and 11 to physically attend classes one out of every two days, if their school cannot organize stable classroom bubbles.
In May, Quebec became the first province to reopen elementary schools — but only outside the Montreal area. Roberge said that exercise went well, with relatively few cases of COVID-19 reported.
In order to protect children from harm, Roberge said, schools need to fully reopen in order to offer students the ability to properly socialize and learn.
"Not opening the school is putting our kids at risk, we have some trouble with mental health, with learning disability," Roberge said. "So I think the higher risk is not to reopen our schools."
Stakeholders in the education sector reacted positively to the revised plan on Monday, welcoming the elimination of the six-student bubbles as well as the implementation of mandatory mask-wearing within common areas in schools.
"Wearing a compulsory face covering will facilitate movement within the establishment," said Carl Ouellet, head of a Quebec association representing school management staff. "This is consistent with the other measures that apply in society."
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.
Quebec reported one new death in the past 24 hours attributed to COVID-19 and 98 new cases of the virus — the lowest daily number of cases since July.
Health Minister Christian Dube said Monday authorities compiled various official sources of COVID-19 data in recent days and the adjusted total included 58 cases that hadn't been previously reported. Quebec has now reported a total of 60,627 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 5,696 deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.
The province also updated the number of people who are considered recovered from the virus, for a total of 53,041 patients.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2020.
— with files from Caroline Plante in Quebec City.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press