Quebec’s ambitious plan to reopen the province hit a roadblock Thursday as Premier François Legault called off the resumption of elementary school in the Greater Montreal region until fall.
Elementary schools resumed classes this week outside Montreal. But the Premier had already twice delayed reopening primary schools and daycares in Canada’s second-biggest city, which has been a hotspot for coronavirus infections in the country. While the growth rate for infection and deaths in the city has slowed, Mr. Legault described the situation as fragile.
More than 3,300 people have died from COVID-19 in Quebec, with about three-quarters of them in Montreal and its suburbs. The city has had more confirmed deaths than all the nine provinces other than Quebec combined. Mr. Legault said there has to be more hospital capacity, including in intensive care, and a significant decline in deaths before the lockdown in Montreal can be lifted.
“Unfortunately, the conditions are not in place in Greater Montreal to reopen,” Mr. Legault said Thursday during his first visit to the city in two months. “The situation is under control outside of Montreal, but it remains fragile here.”
He also announced that the reopening of public daycares in Montreal will be pushed back to at least June 1. Stores and other small businesses in the city are scheduled to open May 25 but the Premier said he has not made a final decision. The area of Montreal and its suburbs under lockdown represent about half of Quebec’s eight million people.
The province had already cancelled all in-person secondary and postsecondary classes. Elementary schools in the rest of Quebec reopened this week with a wide range of attendance.
No other province in Canada has reopened schools on such a large scale. With less than two months left in the academic year, most governments, including in Alberta, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, have closed schools to in-class instruction, despite reopening parts of their economy.
Ontario is expected next week to announce the future of the academic year. Education Minister Stephen Lecce has extended school closures every few weeks, and schools in the province are closed until at least the end of the May.
Premier Doug Ford said he does not intend to have different plans for schools in Toronto and for those outside the city. “We’re going to keep consistent with the messaging when it comes to opening right across the province. And nothing is more important than protecting our kids,” he said Thursday.
In British Columbia, Education Minister Rob Fleming will speak on Friday about a possible school reopening plan. A limited number of B.C. students might return to the classroom in June for a trial run, but classes won’t resume for all students until the fall. The province has kept a number of its schools open for the children of essential workers.
Provincial ministers of education and public-health officials have been wrestling with the reopening of schools because the impact of COVID-19 on children is unclear. No Canadian children are known to have died of COVID-19, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Montrealers on Thursday expressed a sense of relief after learning of Mr. Legault’s announcement.
“I think for the health and safety of our children it was the right decision to make. It’s good the decision has finally been made so people aren’t left in limbo for another two or three weeks,” said Corinne Payne, president of the Fédération des comités de parents du Québec. She noted that parents were split over sending children back, but uncertainty was adding anxiety.
Isabelle Demers, a mother of two children in Grades 4 and 6, said she is “neither relieved nor freaking out” about the decision. She and her husband are each juggling busy jobs while trying to manage the children, but they are getting by.
“My Grade 6-er will start high school next year, so there’s a little moment of closure missing, but it’s superficial. I mostly have a lot of empathy for people who have a real puzzle to figure out with kids at home,” Ms. Demers said. She added education administrators “had better get their act together for September. They’ve got four months now.”
Heidi Yetman, the head of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, called the decision “very wise.”
“Teachers on the Island of Montreal have been riding a roller coaster of emotions,” she said. “They’re quite relieved.”
Ms. Yetman said the province, school administrators and teachers should turn their attention to creating a system that works for September. But, she added, “I don’t see it being any better.”
Ms. Payne said ramping up efforts for distance learning and outreach for children in difficulty must become the priority now.
With a report from Laura Stone
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