MONTREAL — There was a mixture of anxiety and regular back-to-school excitement Thursday morning as tens of thousands of Montreal-area children returned to class for the first time since the emergence of COVID-19.
A long lineup of parents and students formed outside Philippe-Labarre elementary school in the city’s east-end, with many parents expressing mixed feelings about the return to class.
“I think we all have a little bit of fear of what’s unknown, but I don’t freak out about it,” said Cora Bridgeo, who has children going into first and third grade.
“I have confidence in the government. I have confidence in our school system, they put a lot of measures in place.”
And as children went back to class, some parents learned Thursday morning that three employees at three separate east-end schools in Montreal tested positive for COVID-19.
Valerie Biron, a spokeswoman for the east-end school board, Centre de services scolaires de la Pointe-de-l’Ile, said the infected personnel at Henri-Bourassa, Jules-Verne and Francois La Bernarde schools were not in contact with students and immediately went into self-isolation.
Back at Philippe-Labarre, as teachers at the French-language school called out their welcomes, officials said kids can expect lots of hand-washing, some mask-wearing and hallways and schoolyards sectioned off with tape to prevent extra mingling.
Each roomful of kids will be kept in a separate bubble and masks will be required in hallways and in common areas for children in Grade 5 and up.
The government has faced criticism from groups who say the plan doesn’t go far enough and doesn’t include a distance-learning option for parents who prefer to keep their children home.
But at Philippe-Labarre, several parents said they felt it was important for their children to regain a school routine, and expressed confidence in the government’s plan despite their worries about COVID-19.
Bridgeo said the isolation brought on by the pandemic had been hard for her children, and said she felt it was important for them to see their friends and classmates.
She also praised the school for its efforts to reassure and communicate with parents.
Her daughter, Eva, said she was excited to be back at school to see her friends and teachers. She said she was ready to follow safety rules, such as “wear a mask, put gel on your hands, distance.”
More than 150 doctors and scientists also published an open letter this week urging Francois Legault’s government to require social distancing within classrooms, mask-wearing for all students, and to oblige schools to screen children for symptoms of COVID-19.
Their voices have been added to those of parents groups, who have expressed concerns over large class sizes, poor school ventilation systems and a lack of distancing.
Legault’s government has said the plan was developed with health and education experts, who agree that attending school is the best thing for children’s well-being.
Health Minister Christian Dube and Legault have noted that keeping children isolated at home can have negative consequences on their schooling and mental health, and have pointed out that elementary schools outside the Montreal area reopened in May, with voluntary attendance and without a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Quebec Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge told reporters Thursday most teachers and students are excited to be back at school.
“What I’m told is that it’s not yet perfect everywhere of course — because it’s new, because we’re adapting — but that it’s going well,” Roberge said.
Teachers’ unions have also raised concerns that the pandemic will exacerbate an existing teacher shortage at a time when more resources are needed to deal with the pandemic.
A spokesman for one union said many teachers have retired early or have been exempted due to medical conditions, leaving Montreal’s largest school district missing hundreds of staff members as the year starts up.