Secondary schools struggle to cope with COVID-19’s second wave due to underlying issues

A look at  how schools are struggling within  the red zone

Secondary schools in Montreal have been the subject of controversial conversations over the past few weeks.

Despite Montreal being in a red zone, Premiere Legault has insisted on keeping schools open thus far.

Back in September, he acknowledged the risk of sending children back to school, and argued that this was a calculated risk — one many in the education field would agree on, but for different reasons.

Now with over 2,700 cases in the 10-19 age group, cases have spiked considerably from just a month ago. As of Oct. 22, 2,207 cases are from schools in the province — an increase of 1,356 cases from the previous month.

These numbers show that the age group’s case numbers are increasing at an exponential rate. According to Sarah-Ève Grenier-Tourigny and Florence Normandeau, two Education students at UQAM who work in schools on a weekly basis, there is a reason why this is occurring.

The two students are in their third year of studying Social and Academic Accommodation in Education, which applies to students with learning or mental disabilities, and focuses on allowing them to receive more one-on-one teaching.

Their biggest concern lies with the miscommunication between the government and schools. Ève Grenier-Tourigny said, “I find there is a huge lack of accountability from Minister [of Education, Jean-François] Roberge; he’s painting a pretty picture in the media but there is not lots of concrete action in reality.”

Normandeau agreed with her colleague, and said, “I think everyone will do what they want, each school environment will dictate their own rules. But I feel like it shouldn’t be like that; rather, government and public health agencies should dictate how [COVID] is handled in schools, and everyone should follow those rules.”

Certain measures are obligatory in every school in the red zone. This includes highschool students wearing masks at all times, and those in their fourth and fifth year of secondary school only attend school on alternate days. Students continue to have school five days a week, and can receive sanctions when they do not complete work in time. Any other measures have been left up to individual schools to outline.

Frustrated by the rhetoric perpetuated by the provincial government present in mainstream media, Normandeau  explained that the ‘bubble’ system was implemented due to bigger, underlying problems with Quebec’s education system.

The bubble system refers to how classes are placed in ‘bubbles,’ in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID through the school. This means that students aren’t technically allowed to interact with students outside of their own class.

“We don’t have any classrooms, we don’t have any money to protect people, to do our lessons properly. We have no space in schools,” she said, referring to the limited physical space in schools and classrooms that makes it impossible to respect social distancing.

“These underlying issues have been a burden on our education system for decades, and are all culminating now,” Ève Grenier-Tourigny said. “There are huge classes, and now with the pandemic it’s just getting worse and worse. We’re heading for a rupture, if we aren’t already there.”

Another big problem when it comes to secondary schools is what happens when students leave their institutions at the end of the day.

Normandeau said, “I saw students when they finished school … They talk, they aren’t necessarily in the same classes and they talk among themselves and go take the subway, or take the bus.”

Despite these challenges, Grenier-Tourigny believes  it is crucial that we keep schools open for students’ mental health and academic prowess.

“[Keeping schools open] is also important for dropout rates and loss of motivation. Because we cannot see the end of this pandemic, we can’t just decide to take over three years of a teenager’s life … You want to have 16-year-old students with only their second year of highschool?” said Grenier-Tourigny.

Camille Dussault, a student in her final year of high school at Collège Durocher Saint-Lambert, sees herself as one of the more responsible teenagers in her age group, and opened up about the situation in her highschool.

At Collège Durocher Saint-Lambert, students attend school in-person every other day, with online school in between. Since the online schedule is strict, she manages to stay afloat, but still looks forward to the days she gets to go to school.

Prior to the mandatory mask rule, Dussault said she was one of “two students who would wear [a mask] all the time, and the rest of the class was just like ‘oh, I hate wearing my mask, so I’m not gonna wear it.’”

With a classroom filled with 36 students, this was shocking and uncomfortable for Dussault. Now, with mandatory masks, she feels safer.

“Some people were unhappy about it, but I’m kinda glad because I feel so much safer.” 

The most problematic time of day for Dussault is lunch time. She mentioned how many students took advantage of the nice weather to sit outside and eat lunch with friends that aren’t a part of their ‘bubble.’ She has high hopes that with winter approaching, this will subside.

“People …  have lunch there with their friends that are not in their classes, and they don’t respect the distance that is required most of the time. But we do have monitors that make sure that people do [keep their distance],” said Dussault.

This is difficult for her, and she feels like she is one of the only students taking these measures seriously. Dussault describes how she sits apart from her group when eating, and wears a mask even to see her best friend.

“They are all gonna be stuck together, and I am just sitting really far away but listening to the conversations …  I don’t get why they can’t distance themselves. It’s so simple! I could be less excluded if everyone was respecting the distance.”

Despite the stress of going to school in-person, Dussault refuses to accept that she may  have to do online school full-time again. After a very hard time during the first lockdown, she doesn’t feel that asynchronous online classes would be beneficial to students.

Addressing the first lockdown, she said, “I just remember back when it started … a lot of people — myself kind of included — felt very, very alone. And it was kind of detrimental to our social abilities.”

She stresses how difficult integrating back into society after months of isolation was for the growing mind.

“I felt like interacting in real life was almost more difficult! Like I had lost a bit of my [social] capacities since I hadn’t really talked to anyone!”

According to Dussault, many students did not take online school seriously, and it could cause a major problem down the road.

“A lot of people I know apparently didn’t [submit any work], and some things I would [s]lack a bit … but whenever we had to submit something, I would always make sure it was done on time. And apparently a ton of people didn’t even submit anything, like they didn’t even open their computers, which I found crazy. But it’s more common than you think.”

“It’s … worth it to sanitize everything, wear masks, but still get to have that little piece of interaction we used to have before. Even if it’s not nearly as good as before, sadly.”


Photo by Kit Mergaert

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