MONTREAL — Quebec plans to have all elementary and high school students back in the classroom this fall with a backup plan should the number of COVID-19 cases spike, the province's education minister said Tuesday.
Jean-Francois Roberge said the province has the green light from health officials for elementary and high schools to open at full capacity, with distancing and sanitary measures in place.
Roberge said it is important for students to return to a classroom environment.
"A lot of specialists and pediatricians say of course, the virus is dangerous, but not going to school is dangerous too," Roberge said.
"It's dangerous for our success rate, it's dangerous for the kids, it's dangerous for their mental health."
Students from preschool through Grade 9 will return full time to classrooms that will include "bubbles" — groups of six students within the class that won't require any distancing at all.
Otherwise, a one-metre distance will have to maintained between students and a two-metre distance between students and staff. While teachers will move from classroom to classroom, students will stay put.
Such bubbles have been used in other countries, said Dr. Richard Masse, an adviser to the Quebec Health Department.
"The risk between children and between children and adults is limited but it's not absent," Masse said.
"That's why we're trying to limit the spread, and the use of bubbles ... is first for limiting transmission, but also if there's an outbreak, it's much easier to control a small group or a class than controlling a whole school."
Those in their final two years of high school will have flexibility to take some online classes at home while taking at least have their courses in the classroom.
Junior colleges and universities will be permitted to reopen with a hybrid option of classroom instruction — with physical distancing — and distance courses online.
Many universities have already announced they are pivoting to online courses for the fall.
The province shut down schools in March and later reopened elementary schools outside greater Montreal in May — the first province in the country to do so — but high schools across the province remained closed.
Roberge says despite some COVID-19 cases, the return to school for hundreds of thousands of students has gone reasonably well. The education minister noted that most COVID-19 cases reported in schools occurred at home, not at school.
"The success we had in May opening half of our elementary schools ... without any pandemic explosion, I think this could reassure parents," Roberge said.
But Roberge adds authorities are also putting together an emergency protocol in the event of a second wave of the virus to ensure instruction continues online even if schools are again forced to close.
The plan must include a way to quickly distribute tablets or laptops to students needing them and an established digital platform plan to continue courses and maintain communication.
Roberge said the province wasn't ready to employ distance learning when schools abruptly closed, but adds they will be ready for the fall and have learned much during the past three months.
Associations representing the school administrators in Montreal and the rest of the province welcomed Roberge's announcement.
"We are very much in favour of full-time return to class for all students from all sectors, youth and adult," said Nicolas Prevost, head of the association. "There will still be big challenges for school administrators, but we are convinced it will be for the good of all the students."
Helene Bourdages, head of the association of Montreal school administrators, said using bubbles will make for an almost normal school experience and "completely manageable situations."
A union representing 125,000 education sector employees called for more funding.
Sonia Ethier, president of the Centrale des syndicats du Quebec (CSQ), said in a statement the back-to-school plan will require additional resources across the education sector.
She noted that before the pandemic hit, resources were already lacking, particularly for vulnerable students.
The education announcement came as the province reported 27 additional deaths linked to COVID-19 on Tuesday.
The number of confirmed infections in the past 24 hours was 92, bringing the total confirmed cases to 54,146.
Authorities said of the deaths, six occurred before June 8, with the provincial total standing at 5,269.
The number of hospitalizations dropped to 718, with 77 people in intensive care.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 16, 2020.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press