Many students in Quebec head back to school today amid COVID-19 worries

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School Hallway

MONTREAL — Thousands of Quebec schoolchildren are heading back to class today, putting the provincial government’s controversial back-to-school plan to the test.

As Montreal’s French-language schools open their doors, kids can expect fewer hugs but lots of hand-washing, some mask-wearing 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.

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.

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.

But the plan has not calmed the fears of anxious parents and teachers, who have repeatedly called for measures such as mandatory mask-wearing, remote learning options, smaller class sizes or classes taught outside.

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.