Safety concerns abound as Quebec students return to school this week

After an extended holiday break and a shift to virtual learning, thousands of Quebec students are returning to class this week. But some parents and officials worry that the government has not put in place adequate COVID-19 measures to keep the community safe.

Last week, the government announced it would go ahead with its plan to reopen schools to in-person learning on Monday, despite the high infection rate of the Omicron variant. However, most schools on the island of Montreal postponed the reopening until Tuesday due to a winter storm.

The Quebec government has promised a series of measures to ensure a safe return to school, including more indoor masking and 7.2 million rapid tests deployed in elementary schools.

The province also said Friday that CO2 readers will come to classrooms across the province starting this week and will continue through February to better assess ventilation needs in Quebec schools. But some parents are not reassured.

“Here we are in the fifth wave, still no ventilation,” said Shelley Reuter, who has been sending her 11-year-old son to school wearing an N95 mask since September.

CO2 readers can help determine if a classroom is well ventilated by showing if there is too much exhaled air, which can increase the risk of spreading infection from aerosols.

Reuters said a sensor had yet to be installed in her son’s classroom and the lack of communication from the school board was concerning.

“They’re too little, too late,” she said. “I’m resigned to having COVID by the end of the week.”

Teachers demand N95 masks

For Josée Scalabrini, president of the Federation of Education Unions, which represents more than 65,000 teachers in Quebec, the government’s approach to reopening schools is inconsistent.

“We’re told we’re at a peak, that our healthcare system can’t take it anymore, but we’re getting everyone back to our schools,” Scalabrini said.

Quebec says schools are no longer required to close in the event of an epidemic, but can switch to online teaching if more than 60% of students are isolated. Teachers and unions have demanded N95 masks and better ventilation to reduce the risk of this happening.

Russell Copeman, executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association, says a number of school boards have installed air purifiers with HEPA filters at their own expense in classrooms without mechanical ventilation.

Air purifiers with high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filters can reduce the concentration of certain viruses in the air by capturing small particles, such as water droplets that can carry the coronavirus. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“Air purifiers are not recommended by the Government of Quebec, nor funded by the Government of Quebec, despite the fact that Ontario has ordered 73,000 stand-alone air purifiers with HEPA filters for their classrooms,” did he declare.

Copeman says Quebec should follow Ontario’s lead in invoking the highest possible mitigation measures, including providing all school staff with N95 masks.

Public Health Director Luc Boileau said last week that N95 masks were reserved for “special schools” and were not required in all establishments.

Montreal assures parents that the school is safe

While CO2 meters can help identify air quality problems in classrooms, experts say they won’t solve them.

“You would need some kind of air filter or a device that circulates the air or a process to circulate the air in the classrooms so that the same people are not breathing the same type stagnant air for a long time,” said Dr. Christopher Labos, Montreal epidemiologist and cardiologist.

Schools with high levels of CO2 in their classrooms can request an air exchanger from the government, and officials said no request would be denied.

In conjunction with better air quality, Labos says it’s important that all teachers and students are vaccinated and that everyone wears their mask properly. Ideally, he says, teachers and students would be fitted with N95 masks.

Montreal Public Health sent a letter to parents over the weekend to reassure them that it will do everything in its power to support schools and limit the transmission of the virus.

“It must be taken into account that this variant is less virulent and that vaccination offers excellent protection against more severe forms of the disease,” said Director of Public Health Dr. Mylène Drouin, adding that the best way protecting the school community and beyond requires vaccination. .

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