Quebec plans to reopen all elementary schools, daycares by May 19
UPDATED: Retail, construction, manufacturing businesses outside Montreal to open May 4
By Giuseppe Valiante
MONTREAL — Quebec Premier Francois Legault says most stores as well as companies operating in construction and manufacturing will gradually be allowed to reopen in the coming weeks.
Stores outside Montreal will be allowed to reopen May 4 while those in the greater Montreal region will reopen May 11.
Legault says the reopening of stores and other businesses will depend on physical distancing rules being respected.
Stores in shopping malls will remain closed, unless they have an outside entrance.
The recovery strategy for businesses comes a day after Premier Francois Legault announced elementary schools and daycares across the province would be reopened by May 19.
The province has reported 25,757 cases of COVID-19 to date and 1,682 deaths, more than half the national total.
Elementary schools, daycares
On Monday, Legault launched the first step of Quebec’s recovery plan from COVID-19 saying that as long as the health-care system doesn’t become overwhelmed between now and then, elementary schools and daycares in most of the province will reopen in two weeks.
Legault set May 11 as reopening day for schools and daycares outside greater Montreal, with Montreal to follow suit the next week on May 19. He said attendance won’t be mandatory. High schools, junior colleges and universities will remain closed until September.
Legault said he will present the second part of his recovery plan, regarding how to reopen the economy, on Tuesday.
Quebec is experiencing two separate worlds in the COVID-19 pandemic, Legault said, trying to explain his rationale for opening up parts of the province despite hundreds of new cases of the virus being reported every day.
Long-term care homes and senior residences continue to be devastated by COVID-19 — 80 per cent of Quebec’s 1,599 COVID deaths come from those two types of facilities. But everywhere else, Legault said, particularly in the province’s hospitals, “the situation is under control.”
He added that the virus typically doesn’t seriously affect children. Therefore, he said, if the outbreaks don’t escape senior residences, and intensive care units of hospitals continue to be manageable, the province can slowly begin to reopen.
“We will monitor the situation,” Legault told reporters in Quebec City. “If the situation gets worse, or isn’t as expected, then we will adjust. The important words are ‘gradual’ and ‘prudence.'”
Legault and his province’s director of public health, Dr. Horacio Arruda, had been pushing the idea of so-called “herd immunity” or natural immunity, as an argument in favour of reopening schools.
That strategy involves exposing children to the novel coronavirus in a measured, gradual way, to help them develop a natural immunity.
That notion was criticized on the weekend by Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, who said despite evidence that the virus is particularly dangerous to older people and those with underlying health conditions, younger people are still at risk.
On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there is no conclusive evidence that people who have recovered from the virus have antibodies that protect them from getting infected again.
But Legault said Monday his decision to reopen schools was not based on a strategy of developing natural immunity.
He said his reasons are that special needs children need to be followed closely by the teachers; the risk to young people from COVID-19 is limited; COVID-19 admissions in hospitals are under control; and public health has agreed the schools should open.
The final reason is that “life needs to continue,” Legault said.
“It’s good for kids to see their friends, their teachers,” he said. “We don’t expect a vaccine before 12 to 18 months. So we can’t keep kids at home for 12 to 18 months.”
Legault said classrooms will have a maximum of 15 students, and he is asking parents who have chronic health conditions to keep their kids at home. Students with underlying health conditions that could make them more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 should also stay home, Legault said.
He said parents will not be penalized if they want to keep their young children out of school.
A major teaching federation criticized the premier’s announcement Monday, calling the strategy a way of “transforming primary schools into daycare centres, the sole objective of which is to meet economic imperatives.”
The Federation autonome de l’enseignement, which groups unions representing roughly 45,000 teachers in elementary and high school and other institutions, said its members weren’t properly consulted. It says the government needs to provide better answers as to how students can maintain a proper two-metre distance from each other throughout the school day.
“The concerns of our members are legitimate and numerous, and the government must respond to them well before May 11 so that teachers can prepare to receive students safely,” the federation’s statement said.
Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge tried to answer some of those questions Monday afternoon. He said schools can create alternate recess time to ensure there are fewer children outside at once.
He acknowledged however that asking small children in daycare to maintain a distance will be more difficult. Daycares will only be permitted to operate at 50 per cent capacity, and staff will be equipped with protective equipment. Teachers in elementary schools will not be required to wear protective gear, and neither will the students.
This story has been updated.