Quebec teachers unions call for vaccines as students to return to class full time

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MONTREAL — Quebec teachers unions said Wednesday their members should be vaccinated against COVID-19 as high school students in red zones prepare to return to class full time next week.

The Federation autonome de l’enseignement, the Centrale des syndicats du Quebec and the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers have asked the provincial government to prioritize vaccination for their members as more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus spread through schools.

Heidi Yetman, president of Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, said Legault's announcement on Tuesday about the return to class for high school students was a "bombshell" for her members, who were not consulted.

She said the decision to increase the number of students in classes is risky, noting that Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has warned contagious variants are spreading among younger people.

"It's very concerning that the very same day Dr. Tam says younger people are getting the variant, the Legault government opens up classes to more students," she said.

In a statement, the Federation autonome de l’enseignement asked the government to vaccinate all teachers working in schools with presumed or confirmed variant cases.

It asked the government to expand a pilot project that began Monday, under which vaccinations are being administered to teachers and parents in two Montreal neighbourhoods where a variant is spreading widely.

"Variants do not respond to postal codes," president Sylvain Mallette said in the statement.

Premier Francois Legault announced on Tuesday that high school students in red zones, such as Montreal, would return to class full time next week. Students in Grades 9 and up had been attending class one day out of every two.

Legault and the province's public health director acknowledged on Tuesday there are risks to the plan but said the return to class is best for teens' mental health.

Yetman agrees it's important for students to be in class but says the province's plan will have the opposite effect by forcing more classrooms to close because of COVID-19 cases.

Before sending more students into crowded classrooms, the government should address other issues, such as improving ventilation, increasing rapid testing and vaccinating teachers, she said. "To reopen the Grade 10 and 11 classes fully, to me is a risk," she said.

"The other thing we have to consider is, it's not just a risk to the teachers and working staff but also to the students and the wider community."

The province reported 783 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and eight more deaths attributed to the virus, none of which occurred in the last 24 hours. Hospitalizations dropped by 11, to 508, and 118 people were in intensive care, an increase of five.

Quebec also surpassed the mark of one million vaccine doses administered after giving 31,025 shots Tuesday.

Health Minister Christian Dube and the province’s workplace health and safety board said Wednesday they would require workers in health-care settings to wear N95 masks when working with infected or potentially infected patients after a ruling by Quebec's workplace tribunal.

In a decision published Tuesday, Judge Philippe Bouvier wrote that procedural masks were not sufficient to protect workers exposed to COVID-19, including those working in so-called “warm” zones housing suspected cases.

The government updated its position earlier this year to recommend N95 masks for workers in "hot" zones with more than one confirmed case. Before that, the province’s public health director limited use of the masks to health-care staff performing procedures that generate airborne particles or respiratory droplets — a position that was challenged by the province’s largest nurses’ union.

Dube wrote on Twitter that the government would respect the decision, adding that it had always followed the advice of experts and that protecting health personnel was its priority.

While children are far less likely to suffer serious complications from COVID-19, rare events do occur.

The Bas-St-Laurent region, which is struggling with dozens of cases linked to a suspected variant, reported Tuesday that a two-year-old child is among those in hospital with the disease. Public health authorities did not specify why the young child was hospitalized or whether it was as a precaution.

Health authorities in the region northeast of Quebec City have expressed concern in recent days about a rise in cases that has required almost 800 schoolchildren and staff to go into isolation. The regional health authority wrote on Wednesday it was contending with 11 outbreaks, including one in the pediatric unit of a hospital and six in schools.

Legault has also asked residents in two other regions — the Outaouais and the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean — to reduce their contacts in response to a rise in cases.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2021.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press