Quebec education minister nixes half-days for students returning to class in May

Elementary schools will be open for full days when they begin welcoming students again in mid-May, Quebec's education minister said.

Jean-Francois Roberge told a virtual parliamentary session Thursday that the idea of opening part-time floated by Opposition parties' education critics wasn't a compromise he was willing to make.

"If we go there for half days, we also offer a half-service," Roberge told Opposition members through videoconference. Elementary schools and daycares outside Montreal are scheduled to reopen May 11 and in the Greater Montreal area on May 19.

"We think it is possible, with intelligence and resourcefulness on the ground, to welcome, full time, 100 per cent of the children whose parents will choose to send them to school."

Opposition parties peppered the minister with questions, saying they've heard from thousands of worried parents and teachers.

The return to class will be voluntary and the province will set classroom sizes to a maximum of 15 students. High school students won't return until the fall.

Liberal education critic Marwah Rizqy called on the minister to postpone the reopening of schools in Montreal, which has become the country's hardest-hit area for COVID-19. Roberge said for the time being, there's no plan to change the schedule.

On Friday, The Quebec English School Boards Association said no English elementary schools will open ahead of the dates proposed by the government, and individual boards will decide whether to do so once it's safe.

The association said it has the right to control and manage the minority-language school system, and president Dan Lamoureux said in a statement there are too many unknowns.

"Rather than inspiring confidence in the public, this hastily announced plan by the government has had the effect of significantly raising anxiety and stress levels among teachers and parents in particular, as well as the general population," Lamoureux said.

"We believe that local school boards are best placed to determine when and under what conditions schools and centres should open."

Quebec Premier Francois Legault has said that he and health authorities could delay their reopening plans for Montreal if infection rates in the city spike and the health care network cannot cope.

In the event of staff shortages, the Education Department is looking at drawing on teachers and janitors from high school. And if more students return to class than expected at elementary schools, Roberge suggested students could be transferred to empty high schools.

Roberge said his department won't provide protective masks to teachers, as public health officials have not deemed them necessary. Teachers, however, can wear a scarf, he said.

Opposition members of the legislature appeared disappointed after their exchanges with the minister, with one describing the virtual parliamentary session as a "festival of incoherence."

Quebec also announced Thursday that day camps could reopen in the summer, under health directives that authorities said were forthcoming.

-- with files from Patrice Bergeron in Quebec City and Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2020.

SIGN UP NOW

Stay up-to-date and in-the-know by subscribing to one of our newsletters