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High school students at Marymount Academy International attend class Nov. 17, 2020 in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Quebec will monitor classroom air quality, cancel the Education Ministry’s standardized exams and give teachers more control over who passes and fails as it reopens schools Monday in the midst of the COVID-19 second wave.

The province will not pursue the installation of classroom air filters, Education Minister Jean-François Roberge also announced on Friday, after an expert panel recommended against them.

Canadian provinces are struggling to balance children’s education with pandemic control, and have different approaches for how to open schools, or whether to open them at all.

Ontario has extended the holidays for at least two more weeks amid a spike in COVID-19 cases that set a new record of 4,249 new cases on Friday – numbers Premier Doug Ford called “scary.”

Quebec announced it would open schools over the next two weeks, starting with primary students on Monday, while imposing an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. provincewide curfew, as it clocked just above 2,500 new cases every workday this week. Students in Alberta and British Columbia, where recent case spikes have started to subside, are also heading back to school.

Quebec’s decision to reopen schools was greeted with grim acceptance and some resistance on Friday among parents, and the same split among experts that has met every school opening since the pandemic began. Most pediatricians in Quebec firmly support returning, while some epidemiologists and other experts say the province has not done enough to make schools safe.

Attending school in person is compulsory in Quebec, with rare medical exceptions, meaning classrooms are as full as usual. The province was late to adopt masks for high schoolers last fall. The return plan will expand full-time mask use to Grade 5 and 6 students.

The province conducted air quality tests on 1,369 classrooms through the fall and found 3 per cent had carbon dioxide levels above the limit of 1,000 parts per million. (CO2 is not dangerous at that level, but indicates air circulation is poor.) The schools will pursue air-quality improvement plans for each classroom, such as more frequent window-opening or turning up existing ventilation systems. Every classroom in the province will be tested, Mr. Roberge said, and closed if air quality can’t be improved, and the students moved to alternate spaces.

The province’s decision not to buy air purification systems came after one Montreal-area English school board installed hundreds of units, and another board ordered hundreds more. The boards will be allowed to carry on.

Richard Massé, strategic medical advisor at Quebec Public Health, said the filtration units, normally used in medical settings, are unproven for classroom use. “They are meant to work at close distances, near the person emitting the contaminated droplets. In a care setting, you know who the infected person is. In classrooms, we don’t know, and one machine is not sufficient,” he said.

Many measures announced Friday centred on learning. Quebec will hire tutors to help children in difficulty, eliminate standardized year-end tests and allow teachers more latitude in assessing pass or fail.

The province will also produce a streamlined curriculum guide to help teachers concentrate on basics.

Patrick Charland, a professor of teaching at the Université du Québec à Montréal, applauded the measures. Dr. Charland has argued for months that governments in crises must be flexible with student evaluations. “It’s very important teachers are allowed to concentrate on what’s important,” he said. “To me, these measures are excellent given this context.”

Quebec’s FAE teachers’ union said it is still concerned about air quality and that the measures to assist learning are late.

But Mr. Roberge said that, over all, “there is a pretty strong consensus in Quebec that we have to reopen schools as quickly as possible.”

But it’s not unanimous. An online petition against school openings on the National Assembly website on Friday had about 1,000 signatures, and some parents tried to launch a boycott. Caitlyn Bowser, who lives just west of Montreal, is planning to keep her Grade 6 child home, saying she is tired of “wimpy half-measures” that extend the pandemic.

Kareen Blanchet, a primary-school teacher and mother of two girls, who endorsed returning to school last May and again in late August, said she is much more hesitant now because a new variant of COVID-19 that spreads more easily among children is finding a foothold in Canada.

“It’s tricky at the moment, the teachers at my school are a bit split,” she said. “Schooling at home is extremely complex and difficult. But this new variant has us all far less reassured than we were before.

“It’s the same thing for me as a parent,” she added.

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