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A student is greeted at the Philippe-Labarre Elementary School in Montreal, on Aug. 27, 2020. Thousands of Quebec students return to class in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

As hundreds of thousands of Quebec children returned to school Thursday with among the least stringent plans in the country for managing classrooms, the province announced an aggressive strategy for even younger children in the event of a second wave of COVID-19.

Quebec’s Ministers of Health and of Families said Thursday the province will not again shut down the entire provincial daycare system, regardless of how hard a second wave hits the province.

Measures put in place when daycares started to reopen in the spring – such as cleaning, masking caregivers and limiting parents’ access to facilities – have worked to limit virus spread in public early childhood centres, according to Families Minister Mathieu Lacombe. The province will boost testing capacity for symptomatic children and daycare workers.

“We do not intend to shut down the entire childcare network as we did in the first wave,” Mr. Lacombe said. “A second wave is more than probable, but with our plan, we are ready.”

The province will be prepared to shut down individual daycares in the case of outbreaks within facilities. Quebec has had 123 confirmed COVID-19 cases in daycares in the past six months, including 57 cases among children. About 305,000 Quebec children attend daycare. The virus in daycares “really is a marginal phenomenon,” Mr. Lacombe said.

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The main union representing the province’s daycare workers welcomed the announcement Thursday, saying the Quebec government has listened to workers in drafting pandemic daycare plans. However, Louise Labrie, representative of workers in the public early childhood centre system, said these daycares “have a cruel lack of workers” to reduce workload and cover absences from staff who are sick.

Dr. Caroline Quach, a pediatric infectious disease consultant and epidemiologist, said the key to keeping the illness out of schools and daycares is limiting community transmission outside the facilities.

“We will all need to keep an eye on the number of new cases reported daily in each region,” Dr. Quach said. “Our goal as adults is to follow physical distancing and public-health recommendations to keep the number of new cases in the community at its lowest.”

The first day of school Thursday in Quebec appeared to unfold with a slightly greater than normal mix of confusion and relief as parents crowded school gates to hand over their children to masked teachers. In Montreal, it was the first school day since March.

Outside École Arc-en-ciel in Montreal, one parent mouthed the word “Freedom” to another as he brought his child to school.

Judith Arias, a first-year parent at the school, found the return “disorganized” as she wasn’t allowed inside the school premises to meet her son’s teacher, and her boy was required to wear a mask in class – which isn’t required by Quebec government policy.

At least the schedule has been normal so far, she said – in a back-to-school season when not much else is. “It’s all a bit mixed up,”she said.

“The first feedback I have of the return to class is positive,” Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said after touring several of the province’s schools on Thursday. “It’s not perfect everywhere, but it’s going well.”

In Quebec, students and teachers are returning to full classrooms. They are expected to remain in their own class bubble. Mask use is reserved for older grades outside the classroom, and online learning is limited to children with doctors’ notes. The province only plans to close school classes or daycare groups in cases of outbreak – defined by the province as two or more linked cases.

One union representing school teachers announced five school staff tested positive for COVID-19 in separate institutions before students returned to school.

Health Minister Christian Dubé warned the cases will not be the last. “This is a few people among 100,000 teachers. I need people to understand that we might start with a few teachers who have to be isolated, but later on there will be outbreaks,” he said. “We have to expect it and take the required steps.”

With a report from Eric Andrew-Gee in Montreal

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