‘There is a communication problem’: back-to-school headaches in Quebec

MONTREAL — A private high school on Montreal’s south shore sent an entire Grade 7 class home this week after a parent of one of the students called in to say he had tested positive for COVID-19. The principal of College francais, in Longueuil, Que., said she immediately contacted the […]

MONTREAL — A private high school on Montreal’s south shore sent an entire Grade 7 class home this week after a parent of one of the students called in to say he had tested positive for COVID-19.

The principal of College francais, in Longueuil, Que., said she immediately contacted the local public health agency to get advice on what to do after the parent’s call came in around 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

Chantal Dube said a health official told her to isolate all 34 students, to call their parents to take them home, and to wait for more detailed instructions. But the agency only called back with advice around 3:30 p.m.

“Let’s say that as a school principal, I felt alone during that waiting period,” Dube said Friday, adding she hoped other schools get more support in similar situations going forward.

As thousands of Montreal-area students return to class, the Quebec government is facing renewed criticism from some teachers, parents and school administrators, who say the province’s back-to-school directives are unclear — and sometimes contradictory.

Later in the day Thursday, Premier Francois Legault and Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s public health director, offered comments that seemed to conflict with the advice Dube said she received.

Speaking to reporters, Arruda said he thought the administration of College francais acted excessively cautious.

“I don’t want people to think that every time there is going to be a case, particularly a case that is not in school, but who is a parent, we will stop education,” Arruda said.

Legault told reporters during a separate news event that the school may not have fully understood the province’s directives.

“I think everyone is acting in good faith,” Legault said. “We will recommunicate and re-ask the administrations to properly read the plan.”

Dube, however, said the school did exactly what the public health agency told it to do.

All the students except the one whose parent tested positive for COVID-19 returned to school on Friday, as per the public health agency’s advice, Dube added.

A spokeswoman for the health agency, Chantal Vallee, said only the one student should have been taken out of class on Thursday.

“When we explained that to the school administration, the decision had already been made to send all the students in the class home,” Vallee said in an email Friday. She said schools have been given instructions about COVID-19 protocols.

“We can see, however, that for the school administrations, these are new situations for which it is not necessarily easy to respond quickly.”

The government put forward a plan earlier this month for a full return to classes across the province, which has been hard-hit with over 62,000 cases of COVID-19 and 5,750 deaths to date. Quebec is only offering remote learning to students who are seriously ill or who live with someone at risk of severe complications from COVID-19.

Heidi Yetman, president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, said, “a plan on paper is not the same as reality, and now we’re just seeing how that plan on paper is not in touch with what’s happening on the ground.”

Yetman, whose association represents about 8,000 teachers in English-language schools, said the health authority appears to have taken too long to provide the principal of College francais with concrete advice.

“I’m hoping that the government will make sure that every principal in this province will have a contact person that they can call and somebody will answer them,” she said in an interview Friday.

Another teachers’ union said this week the government is not adequately explaining its decisions, which is contributing to a sense of confusion and anxiety around the new school year.

For example, Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge said Thursday that sports and other extracurricular activities would be suspended for the next few weeks as the department evaluates how things are going. He did not give a date when sports would return.

That decision prompted an outpouring of frustration from parents, students and educators. An online petition demanding that sports be allowed garnered 45,000 signatures by Friday morning, and a protest took place in Quebec City.

On Friday afternoon, Legault said sports and other after-school activities would resume Sept. 14 — if everything goes well.

“If everything is fine for the next two weeks, on Sept. 14, we’ll restart all sports and arts like they were before,” Legault told reporters.

Sylvain Mallette, president of the Federation autonome de l’enseignement, a group of nine unions representing about 49,000 francophone teachers in the province, said “there is a communication problem” right now.

“Things are coming down from above (and) if there are changes, they aren’t explained.”

The government risks creating even more confusion, Mallette said in an interview Friday, when its messages are delivered by many different officials and departments, such as the public health agency, the premier, the education minister, the health minister or the higher education minister.

“If there is a change in direction, (the government) must take the time to explain things,” Mallette said.

In an email Friday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the Health Department said school and daycare administrators across Quebec have a list of people in the health-care network they can contact should a COVID-19 outbreak occur.

“The principals will be able to contact these people 24 hours a day and (seven) days a week,” Marie-Louise Harvey said, adding that principals can also reach out to their local public health agency with any questions.

She also said the department will ensure COVID-19 screening tests for children will be processed quickly.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 28, 2020.

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