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It's too soon to reopen schools, especially in Montreal

OPINION LETTER IN THE GAZETTE

Quebec’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic began well under the strong guidance of Premier François Legault who, assisted by health authorities and ministers, carefully accompanied Quebec citizens along a path of unprecedented anxiety regarding their health and the resulting measures to control the outbreak. The return to a “new normal” is proving to be infinitely more complex and has serious implications for education and the economy.

We are deeply troubled by the shifting criteria for the safe return of elementary students and the completion of studies for secondary students. Of particular concern is the level of COVID-19 cases in Montreal and possible serious illnesses in children. This is exacerbated by the sudden announcements last week of the change to the vulnerability age for staff from 60 to 70, followed by a directive that all high school students must complete their academic requirements online by the end of June. These announcements have raised public expectations to unreasonable levels.

Parents who are deliberating about their children’s education should clearly understand two outcomes. At the elementary level, outbreaks in Montreal North and a school daycare in Mascouche prove that there will be elevated levels of contagion and transmission in schools. At the secondary level, the minister’s promise that all secondary students will complete this year’s academic requirements online cannot be realized in an equitable manner.

That these near-daily announcements have left school administrators, teachers and support staff scrambling to assume the responsibility for their success is, in our considered opinion, an unreasonable demand. The burden that every teacher and administrator will experience in the event of a serious illness that results from a school outbreak is unacceptable.

For the only remaining publicly elected school officials, this has become a matter of conscience in the preservation of public safety throughout the province. The question for us is: “Can we, in the public interest and in good conscience, support the opening of schools by which we invite parents to voluntarily risk contaminating their children with a very serious and contagious disease?”

This raises other important questions. Although voluntary, will some parents have to send their children to school due to the pressures of returning to work? Consequently, will a vulnerable portion of the population be adversely affected?

We cannot, in good conscience, rely on the argument that we are merely carrying out government directives. Possible responses to this dilemma range from compliance with orders under protest, to the refusal to reopen until risks are properly mitigated.

In a more conciliatory fashion, our demand is for a delay of school openings, especially in Montreal, until risk management is openly discussed and managed collaboratively with our school board administrators. If such co-ordination is the case for the public-health boards, then why not for public education? The minister of education has had six weeks to consult and collaboratively develop a workable plan. This was not done and has spawned a series of hastily issued centralized decisions without consultation, creating confusion within the system. In turn, this has served to further increase anxiety for parents, staff and students, eroding public confidence in the government.

Let’s be clear that, by the globally recognized WHO standards, we do not have the necessary conditions required to safely reopen schools on a large scale at this time. Our dedicated personnel are doing their utmost to comply with these extraordinary demands and have made many sacrifices. However, the responsibility for establishing these conditions, and the accountability for their consequences, must rest squarely with government.

This article is co-signed by: Stephen Burke, chair of the Central Québec School Board; Wade Gifford, chair of the Eastern Shores School Board; Michael Murray, chair of the Eastern Townships School Board, Noel Burke, chair of the Lester B. Pearson School Board, David D’Aoust, chair of the New Frontiers School Board, Dan Lamoureux, chair of the Riverside School Board; Paolo Galati, chair of the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board; and Alain Guy, chair of the Western Quebec School Board.