To ease the burden on students struggling through COVID, teachers will give greater weight to marks achieved during the second half of the year, and provincial exams for Grades 10 and 11 will be cancelled, the Quebec government announced Friday.
For classroom ventilation, the government has ruled air purifiers are not recommended for classrooms. Those that have already been installed, primarily by English school boards, will have to be inspected. But the school boards said Friday they intend to use the purifiers purchased, on the basis of science that indicates they are effective.
Teachers and child-care workers are to be considered essential-service workers and given priority for receiving vaccines, after the elderly and health-care workers have been vaccinated.
Education Minister Jean-François Roberge and Dr. Richard Massé, a senior adviser to the provincial government on public health, made the announcements at a press conference outlining new measures for the remaining school year as the province grapples with growing rates of COVID-19 infections. Questioned on why the government is choosing to reopen schools as Quebec’s rates continue to climb, Roberge and Massé said schools have not been shown to be a major transmitter of the virus, and in person classes are essential for the mental well-being of students.
Premier François Legault announced Wednesday in-school classes will resume at the elementary level Jan. 11 and at high schools Jan. 18. Students in Grades 5 and 6 will have to wear masks in class, as high-school students have been doing. High-school students will receive two surgical masks every day to wear in class.
Roberge said results from the fall semester, when 98 per cent of classes were spared COVID-19 infections and were able to stay open, showed children can remain in class if safety protocols are followed.
At the same time, changes to the teaching system have put stresses on students and teachers. So the presentation of the year’s first report cards, scheduled for Jan. 22, has been delayed till Feb. 5 for those requiring more time.
Schools will put more emphasis on marks garnered during the second semester, to motivate children who are worried poor grades from the first term will doom them to failure.
“If you had problems due to being absent, you’re concerned about marks you had in the first semester, don’t worry … we will give you the chance to catch up on the school year,” Roberge said.
Teachers have reported failure rates have increased significantly because of COVID-19-related challenges in classrooms. Roberge announced the government will provide more free tutoring services, but added it expects the teaching to be provided by volunteers, primarily among those who are studying to become teachers.
End-of-year provincial exams for Grades 10 and 11 are cancelled. CEGEPs will rely on marks given by teachers to evaluate students. The government has procured enough laptops and tablets to supply any children who need them as of next week, Roberge said.
On air quality, Roberge said the government had tested 1,300 classrooms in 330 of the province’s 3,300 school buildings and found the level of carbon dioxide, considered an indicator of the efficiency of a ventilation system, was within accepted norms in all but three per cent of schools tested.
Any classrooms found to be deficient will be upgraded, or children will be moved to a safer classroom, Roberge said. All schools are to be inspected for air quality. Two-thirds of Quebec’s schools rely on “natural ventilation” — opening doors and windows — to clear the air. Teachers are advised to air out their classrooms before, during and after use, even in the winter.
Massé noted a much-anticipated report on ventilation protocols in schools created by a 20-member committee of experts and released Friday did not recommend the use of air purifiers because it said there’s no proof they limit the transmission of aerosols that contain the virus in classrooms, and can lead to a false sense of security that can cause a lapse in safety protocols like distancing, masks and avoiding loud talking.
“The committee also found that if they’re not installed properly they can create air movement that promotes the transmission of aerosols,” Massé said. Any school using them should have them inspected by a professional. The government will not force schools to remove them, Roberge said.
The English Montreal School Board, which has already purchased more than 800 air purifiers, said it intends to install all of them by the end of January in 30 out of the 55 buildings it inspected at a cost of $1.75 million.
“Despite information released today by the Quebec public-health department that the installation of portable air ventilators in classrooms is not recommended, the English Montreal School Board stands behind its decision to proceed with the installation of this equipment,” the board said in a statement.
The Lester B. Pearson said it also plans to use the purifiers for 17 of its naturally ventilated schools and centres, citing studies conducted by Harvard, Yale and the World Health Organization promoting their ability to limit the transmission of aerosol particles.
Kevin Hedges, an occupational hygienist and past president of the Workplace Health without Borders organization, which recently sent a letter to Canadian government officials demanding better ventilation measures, questioned the accuracy of the committee’s report.
“There have been several studies, including out of Harvard, that have documented the usefulness of air purifiers,” he said, adding it was negligent to send children into schools that have not had their ventilation tested.
Given there has been no flu season in Quebec, health officials are advising any child showing symptoms be tested immediately for COVID-19, as opposed to waiting 24 hours, as was previously recommended.
While some school associations welcomed the news that teachers would be prioritized for vaccines, the Quebec English School Boards Association is asking the government to put all school staff on the priority list.
“Given that schools are reopening during a very intense second wave of the pandemic it is imperative that all employees who have direct contact with students should be classified as ‘essential service workers’ and have the option to be among the first to receive the vaccine to ensure their health and safety and that of our students and their family’s,” QESBA president Dan Lamoureux said in a statement.