Western Quebec spearheads return to school

A number of the Western Quebec schools serve Gatineau

As debate rages on over how children will return to class around the world, the situation the Western Quebec region has come under national scrutiny.

Global update

With so many of the school systems we are working with considering a return to normality, we thought this week we would concentrate our global update upon the experience of the schools in the Western Quebec School Board, who were directed by the Ministry to open their elementary schools on May 11 to all pupils, should their parents wish them to return to school. Last week we reported that the initial uptake was 18 per cent although by the start it was down to 12 per cent. Two weeks on, the figure is 13 per cent.

We spoke to Stewart Aitken, Education Director for the majority of these elementary schools and Mike Dubeau, Director General of the Board.  Mike said it was important to realise that this whole scenario was being heavily scrutinised by the press. The province of Quebec had suffered most from the Coronavirus compared to the rest of Canada, yet it was the first to go back.  With the Board, sharing a border with Ontario, who were not returning, public interest was high at both local and national level. So close are these areas that a number of the Western Quebec schools serve Gatineau which is just across the Ottawa River from Ottawa City, the capital. 

This interest played out in two ways last week.  In  last week’s post we congratulated Susan Halpin, Principal of Eardley Elementary School, on her welcome back message to her students, which went viral. The fickle hand of social media unfortunately came into play and after much praise and some adverse comments it was decided reluctantly that it should be taken down. 

Secondly, as part of the protocol agreed with parents who elected to send their children back to school, it was agreed they would be informed if any student in the school reported feeling unwell.  Such an episode occurred earlier this week and the letter was sent.  It transpires the  pupil tested negative for  the virus, but a parent nevertheless decided to publish the letter from the school on facebook. Within minutes the post went viral and a media scrum developed demanding an interview with Mike. Having listened to his case and satisfied the incident was not virus related, the media went to find something else to occupy them. All except one reporter, who elected to phone Mike later to check he was OK after his experience. Behind every cloud ….

One of the interesting differences to emerge is that the French schools serving the same catchment have a take up of 50 per cent to 60 per cent. This is a significant difference. Stewart puts this down to the fact that from the outset the Ministry had stated that in the school setting no new learning would take place. This has meant that the schools are fundamentally offering a day care service with some reinforced education attached. Another possibility might be that the English sector parents were more likely to be swayed by the behaviour of the other provinces than solely Quebec. This is even more interesting in an urban setting because in Montreal, where the rate of infection is highest, schools are closed in both sectors. 

To add to this, the structure of the education service is going through a major change. School Boards in the English sector are to close in November whereas in the French sector they have already gone. The Boards are to become service centres with some local control and the majority coming directly from the Ministry of Education in the Provincial Government. This means it is the Ministry and not the Board who are determining the schools’ response.  This is a similar situation to Dubai but totally different to that in England, where the Ministry of Education is encouraging primary schools to open on June 1 for Reception, Year 1 and 6 pupils. This is having a mixed response. Some teacher unions and some local authorities are opposing it whilst headteacher unions, other local authorities and academy chains are supporting it. This against a backcloth from the rest of the United Kingdom of pupils not returning for the foreseeable future. 

Back in WQSB the major residual preoccupation of many of the schools at this time is how they report on the progress of their students as they leave to join the secondary phase. The Ministry here has been clear, saying schools are to provide a pass or fail related to performance in the first two terms of the year. The school principals are currently determining how this will play out in practice.

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We are grateful for Stewart’s and Mike’s contribution to the blog and to this one in particular. We will keep you posted how events unfold further for them.  Finally, we heard this week from Jacquie Smith who as we mentioned last week is working in Africa. She offered a contrasting global perspective to the events we are grappling with when she quoted her friend Oscar Semweya-Musoke saying: “Covid won’t kill us. We are used to dealing with epidemics. Last year we lost one person to Ebola. We know what to do. No it is poverty that will kill us.”  In our darker moments it is worth remembering that different settings have different challenges. 

Take care and stay safe. 

George