What Criteria Should Determine Whether Schools Reopen or Not?

Schools in Quebec in what is referred to as the public education system have been closed since March 13. The nearly 105,000 teachers employed by school boards (now service centres) went into action right away to help curb the pandemic and participate in or initiate online activities to interact with their students, provide school lessons, respond to parents' questions, organize solo improvs and online music lessons, and so much more.

On April 10, without any consultation with teachers and their union organizations, Premier François Legault launched a trial balloon to the effect that schools could reopen before May 4. This is the practice of launching a measure that workers have had no input in, then changing position if it is deemed unacceptable, while keeping the same goal in mind. That explains why Premier Legault tweeted that same day: "I repeat that any opening of schools will be done with the agreement of Public Health. We won't rush into any decision."

It's unacceptable, to say the least, that such bombs are dropped within this period of intense stress. To then reduce the issue of whether schools will be reopened to a matter of whether or not Public Health is in agreement, while each and every day we are confronted with the fact that basic public health criteria cannot be applied in the CHSLDs (residential and long-term care centres) due to a lack of personnel, inspires no confidence at all about things having been taken in hand. Neither Legault, the Director of Public Health nor the Minister of Health and Social Services have enumerated the measures taken in schools since they were closed, or those to be taken once they reopen. So it comes as no surprise that a petition asking that schools not reopen for several weeks, launched on April 10, was signed by over 185,000 people in four days.

Measures must therefore be taken to ensure the health of education workers and their students. Working in a school comes with an entire range of social interaction for teachers, students, secretaries, security guards, educators, workers and caretakers, librarians, cafeteria staff, etc. All these people, even before setting foot in the schools each morning, have been in contact with other people.

Teachers and their colleagues are also reflecting upon their return to the classroom. One of the pandemic's lessons for them is that there's no going back to the status quo. Teachers have been holding up the public education system for over 20 years. They are taking up their social responsibility and demanding a say in the conditions required so that schools can be reopened.

It must be remembered that the crisis in the education system predates the pandemic. For years teachers have been asking for a reduction in the student-to-teacher ratio, that the number of hours worked by nurses, social workers, psychologists and other educators, including those devoted to cleaning and sanitation, be sufficient in each school to respond to the needs of students. Such demands, in addition to creating an atmosphere that supports mental health, are now seen to help prevent the transmission of infections.

People frequenting schools have witnessed and fallen prey to a deterioration in public hygiene during the more than 20 years of the anti-social offensive. Examples can be cited, such as the presence of lead in tap water, of mold, of the uncertainty about air quality, etc. This, coupled with the decrease in the number of hours allocated for maintenance renders schools fertile ground for the spread of disease. In 2015, for example, the Ministry of Health and Social Services published the criteria for the maintenance of school surfaces and objects, such as that desks, work tables, shared computer keyboards and mice must be cleaned at the end of each day.[1] The reality is that in many of the schools, classroom desks are only cleaned once a year and computer equipment only slightly more often! Even more worrisome is the fact that neither the Minister of Health nor the Director of Public Health in Quebec exercised their authority, on April 10 or since, to inform the population about what they intended to do to ensure that the requirements for hygiene and social distancing take a practical form in schools.

Mr. Legault, by reopening schools, you are declaring that education workers are essential workers. Fine! Then be advised that teachers will not in any way place their health and that of their families at risk. Based on the premise that teachers and other school staff must be at the heart of the conditions for the reopening of schools, here are some steps that must be taken to be consistent and responsible in this period of the pandemic:

- Social distancing measures: there are 1,210,699 students spread out over 2,725 Quebec public education institutions. This represents an average of 444 students per establishment. Elementary schools have up to 1,600 students, and high schools as many as 2,700. This does not take into account the teaching and non-teaching staff working in these schools. Therefore, human and physical resources must be considered to ensure that the two-metre separation is respected.

- Different schedules so that there are fewer students in classrooms (with everyone separated by an empty desk) and circulating throughout the school. Encourage the setting up of a sanitary station at the school's entrance through one door and the exit at a separate door;

- Application of public hygiene measures: presence of maintenance personnel with adequate equipment for each classroom, as sinks are only available in washrooms;

- Psychological support for students, as our students have been under stress for months and they must have access to resource persons on site;

- Providing information in the language of our recently arrived immigrant students;

- Regular screening tests for education workers and students;

- Access to child care for school personnel;

- Provision of measures for public transit, as ridership will increase. The same goes for adapted transportation for students with a disability.

Geneviève Royer is a leader of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Quebec (PMLQ) and has been a high school teacher for over 25 years.


1. Prévention et contrôle des infections dans les services de garde et écoles du Québec - annexe 4, MSSS [Infection Prevention and Control in Quebec Daycares and Schools - Appendice 4, MSSS, French only]

This article was published in

Number 22 - April 17, 2020

Article Link:
What Criteria Should Determine Whether Schools Reopen or Not? - Geneviève Royer


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