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School boards in Montreal – a closed school seen here on April 27, 2020 – say they are still surveying parents on whether they will be sending their children to the classroom.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Some school officials in Quebec expect as many as 80 per cent of students will return to class when the doors reopen this month, but with parents facing more questions than answers amid hastily made plans, other administrators expect as few as a third of their pupils to come back.

The province will be the first in Canada to wade into the uncharted waters of reopening schools during the pandemic, and educators and families are grappling with uncertainty around physical distancing, hygiene and other measures designed to keep children safe.

Although Quebec has been the province hit hardest by COVID-19, Premier François Legault said elementary schools and daycares outside of Montreal would reopen next week. He initially said schools in Montreal, the province’s virus epicentre, would open a week later, but on Thursday the government delayed the action to May 25 as infection rates remain high. Students will be returning full-time, although it’s unclear how remote learning will continue for those who choose to stay home. The government said high schools will remain closed.

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The impact of COVID-19 on children is unclear. Public health officials are still trying to understand how children affect transmission and why they tend not to get very ill when infected. No Canadian children are known to have died of COVID-19, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

In recent days, Quebec school boards have outlined safety measures that will be taken should families choose to send their children to school. Among them, class size will be limited to 15 students, pupils will be kept two metres apart, and teachers will focus on core subjects, meaning no physical education, music, drama or art classes. School boards say they may relocate some groups of students to nearby high-school buildings.

Michael Murray, chair of the Eastern Townships School Board, said his board is expecting about a third of its students to return in the first week, and has been reaching out to municipal governments to see whether any of their spaces can be used for classrooms if more children attend in the following weeks.

“A lot of kids are impatient, whereas their parents are more cautious,” Mr. Murray said. “We have some indication that parents are waiting to see how it goes in the first week.”

The board’s 20 elementary schools are located far apart, so it would be difficult to move children from one school to the next to keep classroom sizes small, he said. About a quarter of the board’s staff are exempt from returning to work because they are older than 60 or in other high-risk categories, he added.

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“It’s tricky to manage,” Mr. Murray said.

School boards in Montreal say they are still surveying parents on whether they will be sending their children to the classroom. Alain Perron, a spokesman for the Commission scolaire de Montréal, said parents have until a week before classes resume to inform the board and many are still undecided.

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A spokeswoman for the Commission scolaire des Îles, the school district covering Îles-de-la-Madeleine in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, told Radio-Canada that the board is expecting 78 per cent of its elementary students at school next week.

Similarly, Patricia Lavoie, a spokeswoman with the Commission scolaire de l’Estuaire, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, said the board expects about 65 per cent of students to start classes on Monday. She said the parent survey shows that in some individual schools, half the children will attend, while in others, it is as high as 82 per cent of students.

“Full security equipment like masks and gowns will be available for personnel that request it, and each classroom will have hand sanitizer effective on Monday,“ she said.

The board is also looking at hiring substitute teachers and recent university graduates to maintain small class sizes and to temporarily fill in for teachers who are exempt from in-class instruction.

At the Commission Scolaire des Hauts-Cantons, which covers most of the rural Eastern Townships to the east of Sherbrooke, spokeswoman Marie-Claude David said officials are repurposing gyms, music rooms and libraries to make classrooms. About 70 per cent of elementary students are expected to be in class on Monday.

“Parents appear to be supportive of our opening, maybe because they see how few cases there are around here,“ she said. “I haven’t seen a negative comment on our website or Facebook page.”

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In Quebec City, Véronique Gingras, a spokeswoman for Commission scolaire de la Capitale, said school surveys show that anywhere between 40 and 70 per cent of students will attend. The board has adopted strict rules, including having students eat lunch in their classrooms and not allowing parents and visitors into the buildings.

Heidi Yetman, head of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, said educators will do their best to help students be comfortable in the classroom.

“Everybody is looking here to see what that great big experiment is going to do,” she said. “[Educators and administrators] are frantically trying to get the schools ready."

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