Quebec will require students in primary and secondary schools in nine regions, including Montreal and Laval, to wear masks at all times while indoors when they return to class in less than a week.
Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced the changes to the back-to-school plan in a news conference Tuesday alongside Isabelle Charest, the minister responsible for sports, and public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda.
The masks will make a comeback in classrooms across Montreal, Laval, Montérégie, Lanaudière, the Laurentians, Centre-du-Québec, Outaouais, the Eastern Townships and Mauricie.
"This is a measure that is preventive and prudent," Roberge said, adding that he hopes the measure will be temporary.
"Our ultimate goal is to keep kids [in class] and avoiding closing classrooms."
In regions where masks in class are mandatory, a student will not need to be sent home if they had a potential COVID-19 contact at school.
Across the province, masks must be worn when moving through school buildings and while on school busses.
Watch | Quebec's education minister mandates masks in classes for most students:
Roberge said the delta variant and the emergence of a fourth wave have thwarted the province's original plan to ditch masks in classes, which was announced earlier this month. Classroom bubbles were also scrapped, which is still the case this year.
Parent groups and school boards have raised concerns about the recent spike in cases and the highly transmissible delta variant. And in a decision announced last week, post-secondary students also have to wear masks in class.
Rapid testing, outbreak protocol
Roberge says the province will also gradually implement the use of rapid tests in some schools in regions with high transmission of COVID-19 and where the youth vaccination rate is low.
Arruda said such tests could be useful to know more rapidly whether symptomatic students and staff have COVID-19. Tests will not be conducted without parental consent.
According to Dr. Caroline Quach, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist and medical microbiologist at the Sainte-Justine children's hospital, being able to differentiate between a student who is sick with COVID-19 or another respiratory virus quickly will be important this fall.
Quach says rapid testing kits could even be distributed to parents so they can conduct a test on their child if symptoms appear, and keep them home from school in the case of a positive result.
"We're clearly in the fourth wave and our Achilles' heel is really our health-care system, which is fragile, and so we can't allow hospitalization rates to increase, whether that be adult or pediatric patients," she said.
In regions where masking in class isn't required, students who had contact with a positive case at school will be able to continue their studies by wearing a mask for 10 days. They will not be able to participate in extracurricular activities during this period, however.
In high school, in regions where masking in class isn't mandatory, students who have been in contact with a case of COVID-19 will not need to isolate or wear a mask, and will be able to continue their extracurricular activities — provided they're adequately vaccinated.
Those who are not fully vaccinated will have to wear a mask for 10 days in class after a potential COVID-19 exposure.
Vaccination required for some activities
The province is also adding new rules for extracurricular activities, particularly for sports considered to be high risk.
Charest announced the use of a vaccination passport for high school students in all regions in Quebec for indoor sports and for those outdoors involving frequent, prolonged contact.
Students will not need a vaccination passport to take part in sports or other activities that are part of the physical education program.
'A sigh of relief for a lot of parents'
Katherine Korakasis, the president of the English Parents' Committee Association of Quebec, says the updated measures are welcome news.
"It's a sigh of relief for a lot of parents," said Korakasis. "There are going to be a small minority of people who are not going to want the masks, but overwhelmingly, it's a good thing."
The chair of the Riverside School Board on the south shore, Daniel Lamoureux, says the measures just make sense, having learned last year that masks are what allow schools to stay open and keep people safe.
However, the chair of Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, Paolo Galati, says he's fed up with the flip-flopping of plans.
"I mean these should have been the measures announced two weeks ago," he said. "We should've learned our lessons from the last school year and been clear from the start, not to have this yo-yo decision making."
Still, he says the board is happy with the new measures, which he says will bring as much normalcy back to the school year as possible.