MONTREAL — A lawyer representing a group of Quebec parents was in court Thursday trying to compel the province's Education Department to provide an online learning option for all families who want it.
Only children with serious medical conditions or who live with someone at risk of severe complications from COVID-19 are able to get an exemption from physically attending elementary and high school classes. Most other provinces in Canada offer a remote learning option for families who request it.
Human rights lawyer Julius Grey told Quebec Superior Court Justice Frederic Bachand on Thursday the decision to send one's child to class during the COVID-19 pandemic is an extremely private and personal one.
He asked the court for a safeguard order allowing parents access to online courses for their children immediately, before the case is argued on its merits at a later date. To obtain this temporary measure, Grey has to convince the judge that the inconveniences of maintaining the status quo outweigh the consequences of changing the current policy.
Grey told the court the consequences of Quebec's back-to-school plan could be irreversible if someone falls sick or dies from COVID-19.
Granting a safeguard order would not be difficult, Grey said, because the government is already offering online courses for students with a medical exemption. The criteria for obtaining an exemption, he argued, are too narrow. "The government has decided to micromanage who goes to school or not."
Marisa Fernandez, one of the mothers involved in the lawsuit, has two elementary-aged children, including one with respiratory problems. Fernandez, who has lupus, told reporters outside the courtroom she was unable to get a medical note requesting an exemption for her daughter. The school board, however, granted her daughter an exemption based on a previous medical note.
"The exemptions are arbitrary, and difficult to get," Fernandez said. "We believe the parents, in Quebec, have the right to decide for the safety and security of our children."
Quebec Premier Francois Legault responded to the lawsuit Thursday, saying the province is facing a teacher shortage and doesn't have enough educators to offer online learning for all those who want that service.
"We are missing a couple of hundred teachers in Quebec," the premier told reporters in St-Raymond, Que., west of Quebec City. "It takes four years to train teachers. Of course, we can't at the same time have teachers teaching in classrooms and have the same teachers teaching children of parents who decided to keep kids home.
"We can't do both."
The lawyer representing the Quebec government argued that the province's back-to-school rules are valid. Stephanie Garon said the policy covers all children and its goal is to protect the most vulnerable. It is precisely the latter, she said, who would not be going to class if their parents had the choice.
The policy was created in the best interest of all children and based on recommendations by public health authorities, she said. Garon tabled expert opinions with the court, which claimed that in-person classes have benefits for children that outweigh the risk of contagion — which they say is low.
Garon said parents' freedom is already limited when it comes to schooling their children. Quebec law requires kids go to school.
Grey countered that the law hadn't foreseen a pandemic. If the government's decision to force everyone to school — except the most vulnerable — is good for the majority of children, he said, it's not the right decision for all students.
In the end, Grey said, the question is simple: "Who gets to decide?"
Bachand said he would deliver a ruling by Tuesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2020.
Stephanie Marin, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said 8 Fernandez's daughter did not receive an exemption from school