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High school students attend class at Marymount Academy International, in Montreal, on Nov. 17, 2020.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Quebec high school students returned to classrooms on Monday following a month-long, extended winter break imposed by the government to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The return of high schoolers came one week after primary schools reopened last Monday. High school students are required to wear procedural masks at all times inside school buildings, and the province is providing each student two masks per day.

Quebec is reopening schools despite imposing a provincewide curfew between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. until at least Feb. 8. and despite ordering most businesses deemed non-essential closed.

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Premier Francois Legault has said schools aren’t primary drivers of COVID-19 transmission and that the benefits to children of keeping them open outweigh the risks of contagion.

A recent study by a group of researchers, including some from the Universite de Montreal, indicated schools were, in fact, a significant vector of transmission. Government figures indicate that schools have accounted for about 22.5 per cent of all completed outbreaks in the province – second only to workplaces.

Monday’s return to class coincided with a sharp decrease in the number of reported COVID-19 infections. The province reported 1,634 new COVID-19 cases – including about 200 that were left out of Sunday’s tally due to a reporting delay. Quebec had been recently reporting more than 1,900 cases a day.

Benoit Masse, public health expert at the Universite de Montreal, said it’s too soon to know which way the numbers are trending.

“I would be very careful before we declare victory because I think everybody realized, especially in the last 10 days, that we are in a very, very difficult situation,” Masse said. “I think everybody is making their effort and following the rules.”

He said it’ll take another 10 days to two weeks to determine the epidemiological impact of reopening schools.

“We have to see for a week or two that the early trend that we’re seeing (currently) keeps going down and has an effect on hospitalizations,” Masse said in an interview Monday.

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“It’s not going to be tomorrow . . . but we should be able to reach Feb. 8 and see whether we’re going to be in a good position,” he said, referring to the date when the curfew is scheduled to be lifted.

Despite a drop in new infections, authorities reported a rise in hospitalizations Monday after reporting decreases during the previous three days. The number of patients rose by 31, to 1,491, and the number of patients in intensive care rose by two, to 217.

“Before you see a reduction of hospitalizations, you have to see a reduction in the cases,” Masse said.

Quebec announced Monday it has vaccinated three-quarters of long-term care residents with a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

“Vaccination continues to give a first dose to the entire group,” Health Minister Christian Dube wrote on Twitter. Quebec administered 6,845 vaccine doses Sunday, for a total 153,539.

Vaccinations won’t help bring down Quebec numbers in the short term, but Masse said the protection will be needed should cases begin to rise in the spring.

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Masse said it’s too early to say whether the curfew is having a direct impact on case numbers. On Monday, Quebec’s Public Security Department reported that 1,429 tickets had been handed out by Quebec police forces relating to the curfew between Jan. 11 and Jan. 17.

Montreal police said they handed out 353 curfew-related tickets and another 583 tickets for contravening public health rules.

Quebec has reported 244,348 infections and 9,087 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, with 215,325 people deemed recovered.

Efforts in some countries to control COVID-19 in schools by limiting class sizes and using alternate locations made for a more stable and effective learning environment, according to Prachi Srivastava from Western University. She says research shows a lower teacher-to-student ratio also has better education outcomes overall. The Globe and Mail

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