By opening schools, is Quebec going to use children as guinea pigs?

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For Quebec parents, it seems a little surreal.  On April 27th, Premier François Legault announced that Quebec elementary schools and daycares would reopen on May 11th.  But not everywhere: in Montreal, they would open 8 days later, on May 19th.

Montreal, of course, is the hottest zone of the Covid-19 hot zones in Quebec – and in the country.  At the time of writing this, 1,078 individuals have died of the coronavirus in the Montreal region, out of the 1,761 deaths registered by Quebec Public Health authorities.  This represents 36% of the total number of deaths in Canada.

But we’ve reached the peak, we are being told.  The curve has been flattened, and we are ready to reopen the schools.  Not all schools, mind you: high schools, CEGEP, colleges and universities will remain closed until the regular 2020 back to school day, around Labour Day.  In those cases, however, Quebec’s Minister of Education Jean-François Roberge has been clear: “A teenager who is at home must continue their schooling, and their parents must accompany them in that.”  Gone are the days when Roberge was telling students of all ages they were on Covid vacation.

Quebec Premier Legault listed off five reasons as to why it’s important to reopen schools in mid-May:

First, the well-being of children.  “It’s important for children, especially those with challenges, that they don’t remain six months without having gone to school, he said.”  The second reason: the risk for children (and people under 60) is “limited.”  The third reason is the situation being under control in the hospitals.  “If there were teachers or children who become ill, we have the numbers and staff to take care of them now,” Legault said.  The fourth reason: the Public Health Authority has given the move the green light.  And, finally, “life goes on,” Legault said.

I could be dramatic and point out that the well-being of children starts with staying healthy; that the risk while limited is not zero; that hospitals are under control because they’ve off-loaded their elderly Covid-19 patients to long term care facilities which are now overwhelmed and that yes, life goes on – except for those who die, of course.

Interestingly enough, none of the reasons were linked to re-opening the economy, even though it is plainly, obviously linked: Quebec announced the next day the re-opening of retail, the construction and the manufacturing industry for May 11th.  Coïncidence?  Of course not.  These parents must be freed from taking care of their kids, you see.

Another reason that was not listed was the concept of herd immunity, which Premier Legault was touting as the best way out of the current pandemic just a few days prior.  In an attempt to prepare Quebecers for the lifting of the sanitary measures, Legault was explaining that allowing larger numbers of people to get the virus was the best defence against another wave that could overwhelm the healthcare system.

“The concept of natural immunization does not mean we are going to use children as guinea pigs,” Legault said on April 23rd.  To prove his point, the government has made the return to school optional.  Parents who do not feel comfortable sending their kids to a classroom don’t have to.  So optional guinea pigs, then?

Funny that the herd immunity concept was no longer being used as a selling point by Legault when he announced schools were coming back – perhaps because of the many reports about people testing positive a second time, after having been declared healed.  Or the lack of evidence about the concept, as warned by the World Health Organization and Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer.

Nevertheless, Quebec parents are facing a dilemma.  Some may agree with Legault’s five reasons.  Some may even embrace the concept of herd immunity.  Some may be done with trying to homeschool while working from home.

Shops are re-opening and you have to go back to work on location, opened schools are a must – unless you qualify for Justin Trudeau’s CERB and believe it would be safer to stay home anyway.  Trudeau himself wouldn’t say if his kids would go back to school when their school reopens.

Trudeau doesn’t need to make a decision now because in Ontario, schools will remain closed until at least May 31st.  Premier Doug Ford said he would not follow Quebec when it comes to reopening schools because he does not want to put children in harm’s way: “We’ve got to protect our children at all costs and we’ll make that decision by the end of the month,” Ford said.

Meanwhile, there are new reports from the UK that many children are falling ill with a new and potentially fatal combination of symptoms apparently linked to Covid-19, including abdominal pain, gastrointestinal symptoms and cardiac inflammation.

There are risks.  There are always risks, with or without Covid-19.  Kids get hurt and kids sick at school all the time.  Some even die because they went to school.  The question Quebec parents have to ask themselves is: is now the time to take that risk?

On April 30th, the Quebec government extended the State of Emergency until May 6th.  Yet somehow, school’s back five days later.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Karl Bélanger.    Follow Karl Bélanger on Twitter at @KarlBelanger.

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