Who is enforcing the rules?
When the school year began at the end of August, it was believed that healthy youth were at low risk for contracting COVID-19 and that schools could open confidently and safely. Now, in the midst of an extended lockdown during the second wave of the pandemic, schools have become the driving force of transmission in Quebec. According to Santé Montreal, by the end of October, among the highest number of reported cases was in youth between the ages of 10 to 19. As a result, the government is contemplating shutting down schools during the winter term.
Living near a local high school, this outcome is not all surprising. Since the beginning of the school year, I have often seen high school students huddled closely together, without masks on, walking to and from school.
The Government of Quebec provided a document detailing how students should conduct themselves on school grounds in accordance with health and safety measures. Initially, secondary students were not required to wear masks in their classrooms so long as they were with students from their own class. Now, students who attend schools in red zones must wear masks in their classrooms regardless. Outside of the classroom, masks are required in communal spaces like hallways, cafeterias and on public and school transportation.
Physical distancing has not been made mandatory for students who are in the same class as one another. However, when interacting with students from other classes they must keep a one-metre distance, except in red zones where a two-metre distance must be maintained. Perhaps this is easy enough to enforce on school grounds, but once the school day is over there’s no way to prevent the intermingling of students off of school property.
At College de Montreal, for example, the high school students display different behaviour depending on the time of day. At 8:30 on a Monday morning, teenagers can be seen walking along Sherbrooke Street towards the grand grey stone building that was once a Roman Catholic seminary. Nearly all of these high schoolers are wearing masks as they make their way onto the school grounds. The black masks appear to be just another garment added to their school uniform, blending in fittingly with the charcoal grey and navy tones of their skirts and slacks.
The end of the school day, however, shows an entirely different scene. About a dozen students stand at a bus stop across the street from the school on the corner of Sherbrooke and Saint-Marc Streets. The majority of them wear their masks around their chins or have them dangling between their fingers as they enjoy their after-school snacks of AriZona Iced Teas and assorted bags of chips.
While observing the scene, I see a middle-aged woman wearing a mask and big black sunglasses exiting the 24 Sherbrooke bus. She wanders over to a group of teenage girls, about 14-years-old, who aren’t wearing their masks as they cluster together. If you’re not standing six feet apart you must keep your masks on, she tells them.
“Don’t you care about your parents? Your grandparents?” she appeals to them.
“Our parents aren’t here,” one of the girls retorts to the agreement of her friends.
“Yeah, they’re not even here,” they repeat in unison.
Exasperated by the seemingly futile conversation, the woman turns her back on the group and walks the other way. Invigorated by their triumph, the girls brainstorm alternative comebacks.
“My grandparents are dead,” one of them exclaims followed by a fit of giggles.
Becoming increasingly animated with every retelling of the confrontation, their group creeps closer and closer together. One girl with a high ponytail stands on the periphery of the group and laughs with the others while subtly putting her mask on.
The girls spot two schoolmates across the street and call them over. With her mask securely on, the girl with the high ponytail pushes herself to the centre of the circle and is the first to tell the newcomers the tale of their perceived victory.
For those of us who have been strictly following the proper protocols, the event that unfolded is concerning and rather obnoxious, but we must be careful not to judge these young people too harshly. The rules keep changing for these students depending on where they are and who they are with, and they’ve had to continuously alter their behaviour accordingly. Despite a verbal dismissal of the woman who confronted the high school girls, once she left, some of them began to adhere to her request. The issue is not simply a matter of teenagers resenting being told what to do, but a lack of consistency in what has been expected of them.
Feature photo by Christine Beaudoin