COVID-19: Quebec high school students back in classroom after month-long layoff

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MONTREAL — Quebec high school students returned to classrooms on Monday following a month-long, extended winter break imposed by the government to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The return of high schoolers came one week after primary schools reopened last Monday. High school students are required to wear procedural masks at all times inside school buildings and the province is providing each student two masks per day.

Quebec is reopening schools despite imposing a provincewide curfew between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. until at least Feb. 8. and despite ordering most businesses deemed non-essential closed.

Premier Francois Legault has said schools aren't primary drivers of COVID-19 transmission and that the benefits to children of keeping them open outweigh the risks of contagion.

A recent study by a group of researchers, including from Universite de Montreal, indicated schools were, in fact, a significant vector of transmission. Government data has also indicated that schools have accounted for about 24 per cent of all non-active outbreaks in the province — second only to workplaces.

Monday's return to class coincided with a sharp decrease in the number of reported COVID-19 infections. The province reported 1,634 new COVID-19 cases — including about 200 that were left out of Sunday's tally due to a reporting delay. Quebec had been recently reporting more than 1,900 cases a day.

Benoit Masse, public health expert at the Universite de Montreal, says it'll take another 10 days to two weeks to determine the epidemiological impact of reopening schools.

"We have to see for a week or two that the early trend that we're seeing actually keeps going down and has an effect on hospitalizations," Masse said in an interview Monday.

"It's not going to be tomorrow … but we should be able to reach Feb. 8 and see whether we're going to be in a good position," he said, referring to the date when the provincewide curfew is scheduled to be lifted.

Despite a drop in new infections, authorities reported a rise in hospitalizations Monday after reporting decreases during the previous three days. The number of patients rose by 31, to 1,491, and the number of patients in intensive care rose by two, to 217.

Quebec has reported 244,348 infections and 9,087 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, with 215,325 people deemed recovered.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2021.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press