In-person classes at Quebec junior colleges and universities to resume next week

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MONTREAL — The Quebec government will gradually permit junior college and university students to return to campus next week, giving them a reprieve from the largely online education they've received since last March.

Junior college and university students in big cities can return to in-person classes at least once a week and gradually up to several times a month, Higher Education Minster Danielle McCann told reporters Thursday. Classrooms will be limited to 50 per cent capacity and students will have the option to continue learning remotely if they prefer.

She said some students have expressed loneliness and mental health issues because they've been isolated at home for months. "What we want to do here is break the isolation that many students are suffering from," McCann said. "We believe this is a first step to a progressive and safe return to campus."

Students will be allowed to meet on campus and work in teams of six — but must remain physically distanced and wear masks.

In six, less-populated regions of the province that have been moved to the lower, orange pandemic-alert level, junior colleges and universities can return to class next week full time. Those six regions, including the Gaspe peninsula and the Saguenay area, represent about 10 per cent of Quebec's population.

Dr. Richard Masse, a public health advisor, said there have been no outbreaks in college and universities with the exception of dorms and one sporting event. He said he's confident that masks and distancing will reduce the likelihood of outbreaks.

"The risks are often related with prior to classes or after class events when people want to meet and see their friends," he said. "But these are things we must resist, because those are events where people will transmit."

Earlier Thursday, the Quebec Liberals called for more transparency on how the government takes decisions about imposing COVID-19 restrictions. Official Opposition Leader Dominique Anglade demanded the province release written opinions from public health officials regarding health orders.

Anglade cited several examples, from no-bid contracts for masks to a COVID-19 colour code system that she said has never been explained to the population. "We are in an extraordinary situation," Anglade said. "The government has given itself extraordinary powers, it must also demonstrate extraordinary transparency."

Legault promised to release the written opinions in the coming days. It's unclear, however, how detailed or complete they will be. "I ask the leader of the official opposition to be patient," he said during question period Thursday.

Quebec reported 1,093 new COVID-19 infections Thursday and 42 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including 15 in the previous 24 hours. Hospitalizations were down 36, for a total of 1,070, and 175 people were in intensive care, a drop of two.

The province's government-mandated public health research institute said Thursday it expects the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients to continue declining in Quebec, including in Montreal, where numbers have steadily dropped.

The province said it administered 2,300 doses of vaccine on Wednesday, for a total of 243,955. Quebec has reported a total of 266,672 infections and 9,941 deaths linked to the virus.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2021.

— With files from Caroline Plante in Quebec City.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press