As thousands of students returned to school across the province Thursday, Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said art and sports activities at schools will only be permitted within each class "bubble."
In a time of physical distancing and enhanced hygiene practices, students are expected to stay within their class group and that effort is at the heart of the safety plan, the minister said during a news briefing.
"By respecting the class groups, we can do it. By breaking up class groups, we cannot," Roberge said.
He said it's possible to arrange the class groups according to the activities practised by students, but one group can't be crossed with another to, for example, play soccer. That rule will cut short some of the usual activities, he admitted.
Parents are concerned about the reopening of schools and the ability to keep students safe, said Premier François Legault.
"We have to prove that we are well prepared and that the children are better off in class than at home," said Legault.
"Once we have taken up this challenge, we may be able to put more than one class together for certain activities."
Roberge said his ministry wanted to take a few weeks to assess the measures put in place before relaxing the rules where possible.
Announcement shock for parents, schools
This last-minute announcement took Luc Savoie by surprise. He heads a private secondary school that specializes in a sports study program — Saint-François Seminary, in Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures, Que.
"For an institution like ours, and several others in Quebec, public, private, you name it, it's a slap in the face. There is nothing more to say," Savoie told Radio-Canada.
While Roberge claimed groups could be arranged appropriately, Savoie said the government should have warned schools well before the start of the school year as groups have already been formed.
Savoie expects this surprise rule will be disastrous for students who are passionate about sports and he said it's absurd that sports teams not managed by schools are allowed to play together.
Savoie isn't alone in his frustration.
A protest is planned for Friday and a petition circulating online quickly garnered more than 30,000 signatures demanding that schools get the same treatment as non-scholastic sports teams.
Liberal MNA and former professional hockey player Enrico Ciccone agrees with the petition signatories. He said the Legault government is being inconsistent, and that sports are essential for some students' academic success.
"They talk to me about a bubble, that's good, I get on board, but as soon as the youngster leaves school, he comes out of his bubble," he said.
"The bubble aspect with sports just doesn't work."