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A teacher escorts a student in a schoolyard in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., on May 11, 2020.

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

Quebec plans to fully open primary and secondary schools in the fall with a handful of COVID-19 precautions, the latest move to return to normal in the province hardest hit by the coronavirus.

Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced the plan Tuesday, saying schools will be required to isolate classes into bubbles to limit the potential spread of the virus. Each class will contain groups of six students with no physical distancing required among them, but the groups will have to stay one metre away from other groups within the same classroom.

Some online learning will be allowed in the three final years of high school in cases of overcrowding, Mr. Roberge said, but he expects the majority of teaching to take place in classrooms at all levels. “If specialists say school is safe, we should have confidence in them,” he said.

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School attendance will be compulsory except in cases of special health considerations. The education system will also prepare a Plan B for online learning for children who end up in isolation owing to outbreaks, the minister said.

“It may be an entire class, it may be a school, it may be a region where public health decides children should stay home every second day to avoid contact,” Mr. Roberge said. “We want to have these questions considered in advance.”

Teacher and parent associations had mixed reactions to the reopening plan and cautioned the minister that money will be needed to properly equip and prepare classrooms, schools, students and teachers.

Corinne Payne, president of the Federation of Quebec School Board Parents’ Committees, said “getting kids back to normal is the most important thing. Parents can’t continue to be teachers in their households.”

She added that many details remain to be sorted out for the backup plan and online learning for senior high-school students. “It’s very important parents are involved in decisions – and at that age students, too,” Ms. Payne said.

Sylvain Mallette of the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement teachers’ labour group said unions were not consulted on the plan. “The spring reopening only worked because of the hard work and energy of teams on the ground,” he said.

The province’s colleges, known as CEGEPs, and universities will also reopen with a minimum of 1.5 metres of physical distancing among faculty and students.

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Quebec was the first province to send children back to school, when primary schools outside the Greater Montreal area reopened on May 11. The schools enforced two-metre physical distancing, limited class sizes to 15 students and created classroom bubbles that kept students from mixing.

A total of 53 students and teachers were diagnosed with COVID-19 after the reopening. In one outbreak, an entire class was sent home after nine of 12 students contracted the virus. People have fully recovered in 31 of the 53 cases, while 10 students and 12 teachers were still at home as of June 12. No serious illness was reported.

Mr. Roberge called the reopening, which involved more than 100,000 students and staff, “a great success."

“Most cases among students and teachers were from people who caught [the illness] in family or community. Most of the time they didn’t catch it in school,” he said.

Richard Massé, an epidemiologist and community health adviser at Quebec’s public-health agency, said the risk of transmission among children and from children to adults is low. The decision to use bubbles was based on the European experience and is a precautionary measure, he said.

“We are being conservative,” Dr. Massé said. “We are safe, but if things get better we may relax even more. Some countries have relaxed more than we have.”

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Alberta announced a reopening plan with three scenarios last week but told parents and students to plan for an almost normal return to school in September. A final decision will be made Aug. 1.

Since the pandemic hit, 5,242 people have died in Quebec, more than in the rest of the country combined. Around 54,000 Quebeckers have contracted COVID-19, and about half have recovered.

About 7.4 per cent of cases in the province were among people under 19. None of them died.

The rate of new cases and deaths has dropped precipitously in recent weeks after almost three months of school and workplace closures, as health officials eventually contained outbreaks in long-term care homes, where the vast majority of cases and deaths have taken place.

Premier François Legault tells Quebeckers he is sorry the province wasn't better prepared for COVID-19 as it exceeds 5,000 deaths from the disease. Legault notes that about 90 per cent of the deaths came in seniors residences, and he says that should serve as a lesson to Quebec. The Canadian Press

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