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A closed schoolyard is seen through its fence in Montreal, on April 27, 2020.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

As head of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, Heidi Yetman has been fielding dozens of e-mails every day this week, all from educators asking questions she cannot always answer: Who would be exempt from going back into the classroom? How do you enforce physical distancing with young children?

No province has been hit harder by COVID-19 than Quebec, but it will also become the first to re-open its schools this month – a move that is being closely watched by other provincial governments, while also sparking a fierce debate among parents, teachers and academics about whether it is the right move and at the right time.

“[Teachers] are afraid, they’re really afraid of going back, and I don’t blame them,” said Ms. Yetman. “It’s devastating, because there’s not really much I can do except call the ministry, call our partners in education. We’re all kind of scratching our heads.”

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Quebec set to announce progressive return to class for students

Quebec announces plan for surge in COVID-19 testing as province is set to reopen

Quebec Premier François Legault announced on Monday a plan to have all elementary schools and daycares open by May 19, including in the virus epicentre of Montreal. By the end of the week, however, he hinted that he might push back the reopening in Montreal if the situation does not stabilize. A few countries, such as Denmark and New Zealand, are gradually reopening schools with strict distancing measures.

One of the biggest challenges facing governments and public-health officials is balancing the adverse effects of school closings against the knowledge that children are a wild card in this pandemic. Children are vectors for the transmission of viral illnesses, but with COVID-19, it’s unclear how they drive transmission or why they tend not to get very ill when infected.

Even with two months left in the academic year, other provinces were quick to publicly state they would be hesitant to follow in Quebec’s footsteps. “We’re not entertaining the idea of reopening schools at this point in time,” Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said as he outlined a plan earlier in the week to open the province’s non-essential businesses.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney described Quebec as an “outlier” when it comes to reopening schools. He said that while there are discussions in his province about “small-scale openings with restrictions on a trial basis,” Alberta will not bring all its children back into school buildings this academic year.

“The approach that Alberta is following is clearly the consensus view among other jurisdictions that are combating the pandemic,” Mr. Kenney told reporters this week.

Some provinces, including Ontario and Nova Scotia, have extended school shutdowns every few weeks, but Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said even opening schools in June would present challenges, as classrooms would take safety measures limiting class size. Other provinces, he said, appear to be rolling out “closure information in bite-sized portions of disappointment that people can emotionally process at a time.”

A playground of an elementary school is seen in Deux-Montagnes, Que., Monday, April 27, 2020.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The Quebec government has said that parents will have a choice to send their children to school. There will also be a limit on class size to maximum of 15 students, and the two-metre distancing rule would apply.

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However, Ms. Yetman said there are many unanswered questions that have left parents and teachers anxious. Those older than 60 or in other high-risk categories will be allowed to work remotely, but Ms. Yetman said ministry officials have still not answered whether teachers would be exempt if they have members in their household considered high-risk.

“It blows my mind that they didn’t come and consult us first or show us the plan and say, ‘Where have we gone wrong? What can we do to improve?’ ” she said. “We’re calling this the no-plan. It makes no sense. You’re putting people’s lives at risk."

Corinne Payne, president of the Federation of Quebec School Board Parents’ Committees, said parents, too, are torn about sending their children back to school. Families are eager to get back to routine, but parents don’t know what public-health measures will be put in place and what supports are there for families that choose to keep their children home, she said.

Pedestrians walk along a sidewalk Tuesday April 28, 2020 in Montreal.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

In a telephone meeting with parents across the province after Mr. Legault’s announcement, Ms. Payne said about 40 per cent of them were undecided about sending their children back, and another 35 per cent would opt to keep them home.

“They haven’t provided the parents the best information that they need to make those decisions,” she said. “It’s a very emotional issue. We’re talking about our children.”

Outside of Montreal, the rate of infections is low. Ann-Louise Davidson, an associate professor in education at Concordia University, said said she worries that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may end up falling behind the longer they remain out of school.

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Further, a vaccine won’t be available for many more months, and governments across the country will have to rethink what school will look like either now or in the fall, she said.

“We are going to have to live with this and we have to rethink [how we teach],” she said, adding that schools will have to be flexible and even allow students to attend part time, even though the Quebec government said that wasn’t an option.

Five-year-old Edelweiss Aebi plays in a "Field of Thank Yous" in the Montreal suburb of Baie-D'Urfe, Sunday, April 26, 2020.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The province may push back the dates of schools reopening, especially in Montreal, if the spread of the virus does not slow down, said Ciriaco Piccirillo, a professor in the department of microbiology and immunology and medicine McGill University. He said that the protests from parents and teachers may also feed into those decisions over the next couple of weeks.

He said that while there are benefits to a child’s development and growth that come from being among peers and in school, governments and public-health officials need time to be sure children and staff are safe in schools.

“I would not want to be in a position of any government, much less mine because it’s the epicentre in the country,” Dr. Piccirillo said. “How do you achieve a balance between maintaining the highest level of sanitary care and public safety, all the while enabling sufficient liberties and opportunities?”

For Susan Jacobs, who teaches at an elementary school outside of Montreal, the decision to reopen schools has left her frustrated and anxious. She teaches four-year-olds and believes it will be a struggle to keep them apart. If a child is hurt or needs help, she will not be able to go to them.

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Ms. Jacobs is also a parent and worries about bringing home COVID-19. The government, she said, is not providing teachers any personal protective equipment, nor giving them much time to prepare their classrooms.

“Teachers want to work. We want to be there with our students. But we also want it to be safe,” Ms. Jacobs said. “It’s so upsetting to work your whole life doing something and feel so devalued.”

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