Elementary and high-school students will be required to wear masks inside classrooms when schools resume across nine regions of Quebec, including Montreal, the province’s Education Minister said Tuesday.
Jean-François Roberge said the Delta variant is forcing officials to take a cautious approach. The province’s previous back-to-school plan had included a mask requirement for buses and common areas but not in class.
“It’s not ideal, it’s not what we wanted at the beginning of the school year, but we have to take note of the situation, take note of what’s happening elsewhere in the world and the rise of the Delta variant,” Mr. Roberge told reporters about the new rules.
The mask mandate applies to students in Grade 1 and up in nine regions, including Montreal, Estrie, Laval, Montérégie and the Outaouais region in western Quebec.
Students in the other regions, which include Quebec City, will have to wear masks in common areas of school buildings and on school buses but not in class.
Teachers across the province will not have to wear masks if they can keep a two-metre distance or are separated from students by a plexiglass barrier.
Mr. Roberge said the government’s aim is to keep schools open and avoid the widespread closures of the past school year. “Our ultimate goal is to keep students in school and avoid closing classrooms and, as much as possible, avoid distance learning,” he said.
Other provinces have also been reimposing mask mandates for students, as COVID-19 cases rise across the country. Ontario, like Quebec, is requiring masks for students in Grade 1 and up, while British Columbia announced Tuesday that its mask mandate in schools begins in Grade 4.
Mr. Roberge said the province will also gradually implement the use of rapid tests in some schools. These will be used in regions with higher case numbers and lower vaccination rates, he said, adding that they could eventually be expanded to all schools if successful.
Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province’s Director of Public Health, said masks are the best tool to avoid closing classes and schools. As part of the goal of keeping classes open, Dr. Arruda said contacts of students who test positive for COVID-19 will not be sent home to isolate, but they will be allowed to stay in class and will be tested twice to ensure they’re not carrying the virus.
In regions without mask mandates, contacts of students who test positive will have to wear masks and will be asked to stay away from extracurricular activities until they receive a negative test result. Entire classes will be closed only in the case of major outbreaks, he said.
“It won’t be at all the same situation we lived in previous waves,” Dr. Arruda said.
Mr. Roberge said students will not be restricted to classroom bubbles, adding that they are expected to be able to attend classes in person, full time, unlike last year when higher grades were learning from home one day out of two.
Junior education minister Isabelle Charest said extracurricular activities will be allowed this year, but proof of vaccination will be required at the high school level for indoor sports as well as outdoor sports with a high degree of contact between players, such as football or hockey. This vaccine passport won’t apply to activities that are part of a school’s curriculum, she added.
Mr. Roberge said more than 85 per cent of kids age 12 to 17 have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and nearly 77 per cent are fully vaccinated or have appointments for second doses.
The Centrale des syndicats du Québec, which represents tens of thousands of teachers in the province, described the mask mandate as a “necessarily evil” to help schools operate as normally as possible.
“Neither the staff nor the students want to relive recent months marked by class and school closures,” president Éric Gingras said in a statement.
Both the English Montreal School Board and another teachers’ union, the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement, said they were pleased with the government’s decision to require masks, although the FAE said the mandate should have been announced sooner.
A group representing private schools, the Fédération des établissements d’enseignement privés, said it was ready to respect all the health measures in place, but it asked the government to regularly re-evaluate the rules to ensure students don’t have to wear masks in class any longer than necessary.
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This content appears as provided to The Globe by the originating wire service. It has not been edited by Globe staff.