Masks in class and hybrid learning: Stricter measures in place for high schools in Quebec’s red zones

MONTREAL — High school students in Quebec’s red zones will have to wear a mask everywhere on school grounds starting Thursday, as the Quebec government moves to tighten health measures amid a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students in grades 10 and 11 will follow a hybrid model: attending school every other day, and taking part in online learning on the other days. Days when they attend in person, those students will be required to wears masks on school property, including in the classroom. Details about how those students will be grouped will be sent to schools directly, said Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge during a press conference Monday afternoon.

All extra-curricular activities and class trips will be temporarily suspended, though specialized programs like Sports Etudes can be maintained as long as schools respect classroom groupings and two-metre distancing guidelines. Lunches should be eaten in classrooms as much as possible, officials said.

The measures will take place for 20 days, until Oct. 28, at which point the situation will be re-evaluated. 

The news comes after four consecutive days of recording more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 across the province and a record high single-day increase on Monday.

Fewer students in high schools will decrease the numbers of students on buses, in the cafeteria, and in hallways, said Roberge.

Roberge made the announcement alongside junior education minister Isabelle Charest, and Higher Education Minister Danielle McCann. Richard Masse, public health strategic advisor for the provincial health minister was also present.

“It’s important to implement these new measures because we want to do everything in our power to keep schools open,” said Roberge, who said there was no plan to move to full-time online schooling because “we think the best place for students is at school.”

Teachers must wear masks in common areas and the teachers’ lounge, but will not be required to wear masks in class provided they maintain a distance of two metres from their students.

Quebec officials are also calling upon police forces to create a presence around high schools in a bid to raise awareness about COVID-19 health guidelines, as well as intervene in incidents where health regulations are not being respected, said Roberge.

As of Oct. 8, higher education establishments in the red zone must apply their planned emergency protocols, McCann announced.

In-person classes at CEGEPs and universities should be limited as much as possible, libraries will be limited to book lending only, and social gatherings are prohibited. Research activities in labs can continue but any work that can be done remotely should, said McCann.

Organized team sports are prohibited in Quebec’s red zones until Oct. 28. Fitness centres will be required to close for that time period, with an announcement set to be made in the coming days about financial compensation.

“For three weeks, we will focus on individual training within your household, or you can have a partner for training as long as you stay two metres apart,” said Charest. 

Calls for increased health measures have rippled across the province from teachers, parents and students alike. Many have said they didn’t feel the existing rules are strict enough to keep students and school staff safe amid the second

“When it comes to the actions of the government, I feel they’ve done almost nothing to keep us safe,” said Westmount High School teacher Robert Green ahead of the new changes.

Until this point, only students in Grade 5 and up were required to wear masks at school — and only in common areas. Remote schooling isn’t an option in Quebec, unless a parent decides to withdraw their child and home school them independently.

The latest government data on COVID-19 in Quebec schools (from Oct. 1) shows that since the start of the school year, 2,141 cases of the disease have been recorded across 785 educational institutions. Most are in the public sector, but hundreds have been recorded in private institutions as well. 

As of Monday, Quebec regions in red zones are Montreal and Laval, as well as parts of Quebec City, Chaudiere-Appalaches, Lanaudiere, the Laurentians, Monteregie and Gaspesie.

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