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Bai Chao Chen: Quebec’s messy school reopening

Written by Bai Chao Chen
Edited by Daniel Yu

On Thursday, the 27th of August, 2020, students across Quebec attending francophone schools started returning to class. Students attending anglophone institutions start next week. This is what usually occurs at this time of the year. However, this year is much different from the others due to the pandemic, obviously. 

The plan to reopen the schools was and still is met with opposition. Doctors, parents, teachers and many more are worried about the lack of preparation in the plan proposed by the Quebec government.

The plan in question
Quebec’s take on the reopening differs from the other Canadian provinces. In summary, the Government desires everything to revert to the pre-pandemic levels, despite the current situation being worse than when schools initially closed in late March. Students can enter classrooms without social distancing and masks are mandatory everywhere except for classrooms, which is difficult to comprehend.

Compared to Ontario
Ontario has approximately half of Quebec’s total cases of COVID-19, despite this difference, Ontario has decided to reduce its class sizes and given online options to parents who feel that keeping their kids home is the safest option. The Ontario government has put in several measures, all of which are absent in Quebec: social distancing in classes, allocation of funds to inspect and improve the heating, ventilation and air conditioning of schools and implementation of self-screening.

Freedom for parents
Numerous parents are not comfortable sending their kids to school in the presence of those bizarre measures, however, they simply do not have the choice. The alternative option is homeschooling. This option is proven to be difficult due to the amount of time needed for parents to teach their children. The qualifications for homeschooling also prove to be difficult for immigrants who are not especially qualified to teach the respective subjects. The Government has not given any other options for desperate parents which led Julius Grey, a constitutional lawyer to go to court to battle for parents seeking an alternative option such as learning from distance.

Analysis from a common sense perspective
Obviously, the first contradiction in this plan is to have students wear masks outside of classrooms but also allow them to take them off inside classrooms without social distancing. The logic behind that notion is flawed as classrooms can be packed with students. Sending your children to a class of thirty children without their mask, all hugging each other since there is not distancing, is quite frightening, to say the least. Locker rooms for gym courses are also worrisome, especially if there is limited space. The absence of proper infrastructure is also alarming. Countries such as Thailand, China, Indonesia and Myanmar are setting the example as they all have the proper infrastructure in classes, such as glasses separating desks and cutting edge ventilation. In China, students are even provided a few medical face masks by their school every day.

Masks: Different countries, Different standards.
In most western countries, the populace generally wears cloth masks, as it is heavily encouraged by their respective leaders and experts. Here in Quebec, the Government encourages people to wear cloth masks or non-medical face covers, hence why a great number of people wear them on the street or at school. On the flip side, in eastern countries, such as China, Japan and South Korea, cloth masks are far from being the go-to. Most people wear surgical masks or even N95s. In China, children attending school switch their surgical masks every 3 hours to maintain their effectiveness. 

The Other Side of the Coin
Some, by default, are for the reopening of schools. Others are against mandatory face masks. It is reasonable to disagree, but instead of ridiculing them, we must understand where they are coming from. Children staying at home for a long period of time may develop mental health issues. Some parents value mental health more and believe their children should live a normal childhood; socializing with their peers and having fun. Some also believe that children wearing a face mask for an extended period of time is bad for them, and they are not completely wrong on that end. Wearing a face mask for 8 hours is tough, that is the reality.

The Desirable Consensus
The world is not perfect and the values each family holds varies. Therefore, the Quebec government must give the parents a choice on whether they want to keep their children at home for online schooling. This is not complicated: the ones who feel like their children should go to school and live their childhood normally despite a pandemic will do so. The ones who fear for their health will keep them home while still getting an education via online school. This scenario is the most desirable one. No one is forcing anyone to do anything. The government would not be forcing students to either attend school physically or stay home. The choice is in their own hands, in the hands of their family and their loved ones. This is not complicated and should be adopted in any seemingly free society. The contrary will prove to be autocratic due to the unavailability of choices and the sequential consequences caused by the State enforcing one decision or the other.

Doctor’s Note
If one of your relatives has health issues, bringing the virus home would be a catastrophe. Some might think that obtaining a doctor’s note that allows students to stay home is an easy task. However, despite having health problems, it still proves to be quite difficult. Parents with children having asthma and other health-related issues were unable to obtain a doctor’s note and some with even worse health conditions were turned down. It is difficult if not impossible to get a doctor’s note without an extremely serious disease; people with mild diseases who are still at risk are usually turned down.

The Expected Outcome and the Results So Far
The outcome that is shared by all experts is that cases would occur in schools. Dr.Arruda and Premier Legault both mentioned that a class would not be quarantined if one student tested positive, which is odd when taking into consideration that other students in the class were in constant close contact with that student. The result so far from the first day of opening is dangerous as expected. The parent of a student attending grade 7 at College Francais in Longueuil informed the school that he tested positive for COVID himself and had symptoms for a week. That student was in class with his peers at the time. The whole class got evacuated and the Premier later said in a press conference that it was quite exaggerated and only the student in question should be quarantined. On Friday, the second day of the school reopening, 20 teachers and hundreds of students from Polyvalente Deux-Montagnes had to be quarantined and stay home respectively after two teachers tested positive for the virus. Those 20 teachers could have been in contact with the infected teachers. As a preventive measure they were all quarantined. This is only a few days into the school year. More of this will surely occur and the continuous stress for the wellbeing of the students will forever rest on the shoulders of the desperate parents who are sending their children into a disaster area every single day.

Our Society’s Attitude Towards the Virus
It is a trend in the West and especially in North America to have knee-jerk reactions to current events. For instance, during the first two weeks of quarantine, people were pleading others to #stayhome. However, when the protests sparked, people were marching on the streets for a few days #BLM. Now, everything has calmed down and the population is back to doing what they have always been doing. As the restrictions relaxed, individuals who were confined to their homes and scared about the virus are now out in the streets, going to restaurants with their friends and going to parks with their families without distancing when others are walking by. They would have never done so in late March when quarantine was imposed. 

At the time, they were scared by the media mentioning COVID every day. A single case would spark fear in them. Now, their fear is gone, despite many cases every day. It seems like they are used to the numbers and their fear has faded away. Some of them are not respecting social distancing, some are throwing parties, some are not wearing the mask and some others are completely forgetting about the pandemic. This is not a critique of this attitude but rather an observation on the rapid change of lifestyle in North America according to trends followed. This might be a vast generalization that could be incorrect, but I would like to invite you to look at your friends and family members and count how many can be attributed to this type of behaviour. I would also invite you to go for a walk in a nearby park and observe how many do not respect social distancing, how many are wearing their masks the wrong way. Quebec in general is reactive to events, not proactive. The population and the government do not mind the existence of COVID until it strikes Quebec itself and the media subsequently starts reporting on it. This type of behaviour is not common in the East. In fact, with the appearance of a single case of COVID in South Korea or in China, the population mobilizes itself and directives are taken seriously. South Korea’s second wave hit and most physical events were cancelled and bars were immediately closed.  Measures are strict and are taken seriously. Tracking apps are in place to detect the presence of cases and their whereabouts. Citizens comply with the government’s demands and do not protest mandatory mask-wearing.

After inspecting the facts and examining the attitude of the Government of Quebec when it comes to schools reopening, one could think that they are trying to achieve herd immunity without really mentioning it. The government is either foolish enough to send more than 185 000 students in Montreal to school or perhaps they have an undermining plan that is herd immunity, not to mention that the city alone accounts for 23% of COVID cases nationwide. Logically, there is no way a government forces 185 000 students to go into full-size classes without any health measures. Herd immunity, as we know it, would require sacrifices. It is far from complicated to understand the drawbacks of this idea. Teenagers can transmit COVID to their relatives. Some people’s relatives are more at risk than others. The last intention that could be thought is a gamble. If it succeeds, the government would have provided education to thousands during a pandemic without any severe repercussions. However, on the flip side, if the number of cases start increasing, this government would be remembered as one of the most incompetent the province has ever seen to this day.

A reasonable prediction would be that an increase in cases would occur across schools in Quebec. If the number of cases is too high, a certain degree of confinement would inevitably occur once it explodes above 160 for a few days. It is also quite possible that the Quebec government keeps demanding kids to be sent to school despite numerous sparks of cases. This will surely be met with opposition from parents and teachers. This plan has more chance of failure than a success due to its reactive approach. In the worst-case scenario, society will be confined as it was in spring. Towards the end of September and across October, the number of cases might rise exponentially due to the arrival of the second wave and the ineffectiveness of the Quebec government to isolate possible infected individuals. It would be a relief if this rather pessimistic prediction turns out to be incorrect, but it may likely occur.

Final thoughts
This trial and error attitude displayed by the Quebec government instead of a proactive approach will cost lives and could end up as a total failure. It could also be a success, even though it does not seem like it a few days into the reopening. And the saddest in all of this is how parents have been utterly disempowered when it comes to deciding the fate of their own children.

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