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'I'm angry': some parents, teachers anxious as Quebec schoolkids head back to class

MONTREAL — Olga Maria Ruiz is reluctantly sending her 11-year-old daughter back to school in Montreal this year, armed with a few extra masks and reminders not to hug her classmates and teachers.

MONTREAL — Olga Maria Ruiz is reluctantly sending her 11-year-old daughter back to school in Montreal this year, armed with a few extra masks and reminders not to hug her classmates and teachers.

As many Quebec children return to class this week, some parents and teachers say the normal nervousness surrounding this time of year has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as by the government's back-to-school plan they say fails to protect them and their families.

"I'm not feeling happy about it," Maria Ruiz said in a phone interview Wednesday. "I'm concerned. I'm angry. And I'm worried."

"We're worried about what's going to happen and the potential for her to get contagious and the potential to transfer this contagion to myself."

Unlike other provinces such as Ontario, Quebec isn't offering a remote learning option — except for students who are severely ill or who live with someone at risk of serious complications from COVID-19.

Students in Grade 5 and above will be required to wear masks in hallways and in common areas, but not in class. Students up through Grade 9 will physically be in class for the whole day. Children won't have to social distance with their classmates, but each class will be it's own "bubble" kept separate from others.

The Quebec government has repeatedly defended its plan, which it says was developed in consultation with public health experts.

Health Minister Christian Dube and Premier Francois Legault have noted that keeping children home can have negative consequences on their schooling and mental health, and have pointed out that elementary schools outside the Montreal area reopened in May, with voluntary attendance and without a spike in COVID-19 cases.

But the plan has not calmed the fears of anxious parents and teachers, who have repeatedly called for measures such as mandatory mask-wearing, remote learning options, smaller class sizes or classes taught outside.

Doug Liberman, an administrator of a Facebook page called Quebec Parents Stand Together, describes the government's plan as "negligent."

He said there's "no excuse" for the government not to have offered a remote learning option, which would have allowed for smaller class sizes and more physical distancing for those who remain in class.

"Having six months to figure it out and not having it done is crazy," he said.

Maria Ruiz has concerns about the ventilation in the school her daughter attends, which was built in 1908. Since there's no online options that would let her keep her child home, she can only hope the parents of the 25 or so other children in her daughter's class will be responsible.

She fears the government hasn't learned from the mistakes it made this spring in long-term care facilities, which have accounted for about half the province's 5,747 deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.

"They reacted instead of being proactive, and their decisions led to the number of deaths related to that," she said.

Teachers are also feeling anxious, according to the president of one of the unions representing them.

"Teachers are eager to rejoin their students, but there are worries for their own security and for that of students and colleagues," Sylvain Mallette of the Federation Autonome de l'Ensignement, said Wednesday in an interview.

He said he was surprised the province opted to have most students return full-time, since most teachers expressed a preference for a mix of in class and remote learning.

Mallette said the pandemic has caused some teachers to retire early or go on leave, exacerbating an already-existing teacher shortage. Montreal's largest service centre — the equivalent of a school board — is missing 500 people, he said.

He said the government hasn't announced enough funding to help teachers, who are facing the challenges of helping students catch up with their schoolwork while simultaneously being given more responsibilities for supervising students and implementing health measures.

"The equivalent of $20 per student to manage the effects of the pandemic is clearly insufficient," he said of the government funding.

For now, Maria Ruiz has little choice but to send her daughter back to school. But she hopes a lawsuit being filed on behalf of parents demanding a remote learning option will eventually succeed and give her more choices.

Liberman says he and the parents he's met on Facebook aren't giving up. For now they're writing letters, making calls, liaising with teachers to get them the resources they need, and contemplating a social media campaign aimed at convincing more kids to wear masks in school or to even start a one-day "sit out" from school as a protest.

Ultimately, they'll keep up the pressure until the government changes its plan, he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 26, 2020

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press