Quebec schools will reopen for in-person learning as planned on Jan. 17

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MONTREAL — Quebec is sticking to its plan to have elementary and high school students return to classrooms on Jan. 17, Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said Wednesday, despite the continuing spread of COVID-19 in the province.

"The health context is difficult," Roberge told reporters in Montreal. "The variant is extremely contagious, however with the work that we've done, with the equipment that we've installed and will install, and with the precautions that are being taken, it's important to say that our schools are and will be safe."

Roberge said the province will distribute five COVID-19 self-tests per month to all primary and secondary school students in January and February as part of its plan to control spread of the disease in schools.

The province also plans to install around 90,000 carbon dioxide detectors in schools, he said, adding that by Friday, more than 50,000 detectors will have been delivered. The detectors provide a measure of how well ventilated schools are.

Teachers will also be added to the list of priority groups eligible to receive PCR tests for COVID-19 starting Jan. 15, Roberge said. The Quebec government announced Tuesday it is no longer offering PCR testing to the general public and is instead reserving those tests for higher-risk groups.

While some teachers unions have called for N95 masks to be distributed to teachers, Quebec public health continues to recommend the use of surgical masks.

Public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda told reporters that N95 masks are better in theory than surgical masks, but it's not clear they offer a higher level of protection in the real world, because they can be more difficult to wear properly and are uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time.

Dr. Olivier Drouin, a pediatrician at Sainte-Justine hospital in Montreal, said the government faced a difficult decision about reopening classrooms, given the high number of COVID-19 cases in schools before the holidays.

However, he said the isolation that has come with shifts to remote learning during the pandemic has been hard on many children. "There's been a huge increase in mental health issues, including eating disorders," he said. "We've documented that, a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression."

Drouin said there's no evidence the Omicron variant poses more danger to children than previous strains of the novel coronavirus. Although a record number of children are being hospitalized with COVID-19, that is a reflection of the sheer number of cases, he said, adding that the rate of hospitalization remains the same.

A group representing parents, however, criticized the return-to-school plan. The Fédération des comités de parents du Québec said the province hasn't done enough to improve ventilation in schools. The group said the government has also not adequately supported students struggling with mental health issues or who lack motivation after being cut off from classmates and extracurricular activities.

"Today's press conference didn't provide any answers to parents' questions. The premier assured us last week that everything would be done to ensure a return to class on Jan. 17, but we still don't know what more has been done," Kévin Roy, the group's president, said in a news release.

Earlier Wednesday, Quebec reported 39 more deaths and 158 more hospitalizations related to COVID-19. The Health Department said data from the previous 24 hours showed 1,750 people were in hospital with COVID-19, including 191 in intensive care — a rise of six from the day before.

Arruda said public health believes between 30 and 40 per cent of COVID-19 patients in Quebec were hospitalized for another condition and tested positive for the novel coronavirus after they were admitted.

Officials reported 14,486 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday and said about 28 per cent of tests came back positive — the same positivity rate as the day before.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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