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'Our plan is solid': minister rejects criticism of Quebec's back to school strategy

A empty classroom is pictured at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020. The British Columbia government is set to announce its updated plan for a safe return for public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

MONTREAL – Quebec’s health minister says the province does not intend to adjust its back-to-school plan, despite criticism from doctors and scientists who have called it inadequate.

Christian Dube told reporters Tuesday the plan was created in partnership with experts in the health and education fields and it will not be changed in response to the concerns raised in an open letter signed by some 150 doctors and scientists.

“Our plan is solid,” he told reporters in Montreal.

“We’re always open to suggestion, but I think at this time we have a clear plan, we have a way to go with schools, we’ll go this way and if we need to adjust, as we’ve done in the last six months, we’ll adjust.”

Dube pointed out that the province successfully reopened most elementary schools in May, and that the number of new cases have been declining even as Quebec reopened its economy and allowed inter-regional travel.

The province’s current rate of positive tests, which stands at about 10 cases per million citizens, makes Quebec “one of the places where COVID is best controlled in the world,” he said.

Dube said he wants to keep that number below 20 cases per million, or about 160 new cases per day, at which point he would consider making big changes.

In the open letter sent Monday to Dube as well as to Premier Francois Legault and to other officials, the signatories said the government’s health directives for students aren’t sufficient, school ventilation systems need to be updated, and families must be offered remote learning options.

RELATED: Quebec won’t ask population to use federal COVID-19 contact tracing smartphone app

The signatories are calling on the government to encourage social distancing within classrooms, require mask-wearing inside classrooms, and to oblige schools to screen children for symptoms of COVID-19.

George Thanassoulis, an associate professor of medicine at McGill University and the letter’s main author, said Tuesday the province has done a good job of reducing the number of active COVID-19 cases.

And while he doesn’t want to scare his fellow parents, he said he believes now is the time to be careful and to make sure that all the progress isn’t lost in the coming weeks when children go back to school.

“We all agree school is the best place for our kids, but more steps could be taken to ensure the safety of the children, the teachers and really our community,” he said in a phone interview.

Thanassoulis said he was particularly surprised to learn that physical distancing requirements won’t be enforced within all classrooms, despite government messaging on the importance keeping a one or two-metre distance from other people.

He said classrooms can contain up to 30 students, even at a time when private indoor gatherings are limited to 10 people or less.

Meanwhile, Quebec reported 62 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday and three additional deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.

But officials said the total number of deaths increased only by two, to 5,746, because one death previously added to the tally turned out to be unrelated.

Hospitalizations increased by three to 118, while the number of people in intensive care remained stable at 12.

Officials completed 9,231 tests on Aug. 23, the last day for which testing data is available. That number is significantly lower than in recent days.

There have been a total of 61,803 COVID-19 cases in Quebec, of which 54,850 are considered recovered.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2020.