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Quebec returns to in-person classes Monday, but parents denounce lack of safe measure

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MONTREAL — Thousands of elementary and high school students are set to return to in-person learning across Quebec on Monday, but parents say they're concerned the province hasn't done enough to ensure classrooms safety amid COVID-19's virulent fifth wave. 

Premier François Legault announced last week he would proceed with a plan to reopen schools to in-person learning on Jan. 17 even as pandemic-related infection rates and hospitalizations continue to mount provincewide.

The government promised a suite of protective measures to ensure a safe return — such as mandatory masking indoors and 7.2 million rapid tests to be deployed in elementary schools — but several parents say they are not reassured. 

Among them is Cheryl Cooperman, a Montreal psychologist and mother of two, whose eight and 11-year-old children won't be returning to a physical classroom on Monday. 

She says the situation is too critical for the children to be back in schools without additional measures, and will at least wait until her kids are adequately vaccinated. 

"I don’t know why Quebec always has to reinvent the wheel," Cooperman said on Sunday. "We know surgical masks aren’t as protective, so it’s what? By magic? By magic, the children will be protected here in Quebec and aren’t going to get COVID?"

Cooperman co-wrote and co-signed an open letter to the provincial government on Saturday in which she denounced what she described as inconsistent public health measures. 

The letter questions the logic behind closing schools in December, when cases had not reached their peak, only to reopen them now as infection rates continue to soar. The province reported 5,946 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, along with 21 more deaths related to the virus. 

The letter also criticizes Quebec's reluctance to widely deploy air purifiers and N95 masks, saying the government missed a chance to adequately protect classrooms. 

Public Health Director Luc Boileau said last week that N95 masks were reserved for 'specialized schools' and were 'not necessary in all facilities.

Adam Allouba shares Cooperman's concerns.

The father of two, who also co-authored the letter, said he's anxious after watching the COVID-19 situation deteriorate in recent weeks. 

"We should have done everything we could to secure the schools, but that's not the approach that was taken," he said. "It's not enough." 

Allouba and Cooperman say they're also worried about the updated guidelines to manage outbreaks. Quebec says schools are now no longer required to shut down in the event of an outbreak, but can transition to online teaching if more than 60 per cent of the students are in isolation. 

"We keep saying that schools are safe, that we can send our children back … my god, I wish I could believe it," Allouba said. 

For Josée Scalabrini, president of the Fédération des syndicats de l'enseignement which represents more than 65,000 teachers in Quebec, the government's approach is incoherent. 

"We are told that we are at a peak, that our health-care system is no longer able to take it, but we are bringing everyone back to our schools," Scalabrini said.

Quebec reported yet another jump in COVID-19-related hospitalizations on Sunday, saying the figure climbed by 105 in the past 24 hours and now stands at 3,300.

The provincial health department said 282 patients are currently in intensive care, an increase of seven from the previous day. Authorities said 81,564 doses of COVID-19 vaccine were administered in the past 24 hours, including 71,724 third doses.

It also said 13.1 per cent of the 39,806 COVID-19 tests processed in the last 24 hours came back positive.

-With files from Frédéric Lacroix-Couture 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2022. 

Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press