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Officials against reopening of schools, borders

CALEB NICKERSON
PONTIAC May 6, 2020
Local officials are voicing their concerns following the Quebec government’s announcements last week regarding the reopening of schools and daycares, as well as the removal of police checkpoints to restrict inter-regional travel.
On April 27, Premier François Legault and Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced that elementary schools and daycares outside the Montreal area would reopen on May 11, after being shuttered for more than seven weeks due to the ongoing pandemic. Roberge laid out the precautions that would be taken, such as limiting classes to 15 students and enforcing social distancing measures on buses and the playground. He also noted that attendance would be entirely optional, and that parents would not be penalized for keeping their children at home.
Later that week, Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault announced that travel restrictions would be gradually lifted across the province. The police checkpoints were put into place on the borders of the MRCs in the Outaouais region on April 1, and are scheduled to be lifted on May 11, with the exception of the ones between Gatineau and Ottawa. Guilbault said that despite the checkpoints being lifted, Quebecers should still be making only essential trips.
Pontiac Warden Jane Toller was apprehensive about the gradual reopening of the region, which will coincide with the province’s construction and manufacturing industries starting back up on the same date.
“I think that we’ve been very fortunate, at this point,” she said, noting that MRC Pontiac has had no confirmed COVID-19 cases. “I do credit the controlled access for part of the reason why we’ve been well-protected, because even though [checkpoints were] random and four hours a day at each point, it sent a message of seriousness and it caused everybody to stop and think before they travelled, and I mean residents of the Pontiac and people from outside.”
“I knew it wasn’t going to continue forever,” she continued, pointing out that with summer weather approaching, she anticipates that there will be an increase in traffic to the region. “That is the interesting thing, the provincial government is, on one hand, taking away the controls, but on the other hand saying that the travel ban is still in place and only essential travel is acceptable and people are not to leave their region. I think that is going to be difficult to control.”
Toller, along with neighbouring wardens, had strongly advocated for police enforcement of the travel restrictions before they were put in place, and said that both permanent residents and cottagers should still abide by Quebec’s distancing and hygiene guidelines.
“It’s going to be a few [more] months at least of strong prevention measures … this is not the time to relax,” she said.
Pontiac MNA André Fortin shared Toller’s concerns.
“I think a lot of people in the region, will be pleased to see that they can return to the places that they used to shop,” he said. “At the same time, the reopening will pose some challenges, in terms of ensuring that people do maintain the social distancing norms, that’s the big challenge. Once you loosen all those regulations and requirements, how do you still apply some of the basic principles that were put forward over the past few months? We saw it this weekend, there were a lot of people who were not following the regulations across the province and while the economy is reopening, the schools are reopening, these are still important things to do in order to limit the spread of the virus.”
On the subject of schools reopening, Fortin said that the plan released by the government has some major issues that need to be addressed.
“The press conference with the Education Minister raised more questions than it answered,” he said. “There’s a real concern [from] a lot of teachers and parents, that there’s no protective equipment whatsoever that will be given to teachers as they enter the classroom. In our minds, it would be better, and it would be safer, if schools were given the latitude to open when they feel it’s safe for all children.”
He added that he and his wife have made the difficult choice to send their eldest daughter back to school on May 11.
“There is no reason to rush a return to school if it’s not safe,” he said, noting that English school boards across Quebec have requested that the provincial authorities grant boards some leeway to open only when they see fit. “Both myself and the school board, we’re still waiting for the government to budge on this. So far the government has been steadfast that May 11 is the date, and that’s what parents should be getting ready for right now.”
Toller said that she had heard from many constituents about the issue, most of whom opposed reopening.
“I was disappointed,” she said. “I’ve been very supportive of everything that the premier is doing. He’s been a great leader [during] COVID-19 and I feel that the public has their trust in him and their confidence, but I was surprised that he was going to rush reopening elementary schools and daycare.”
“I just feel it’s too early,” she continued. “The feedback I’ve received from [residents] … they are all saying, ‘I won’t be sending my child.’ … I’ve had several letters from teachers, just hoping that I can do something on their behalf, saying that the premier has really not thought about what it will be like for teachers to have to go back into that environment.”
She added that she also has concerns about the health of support workers and bus drivers, many of whom are in the high-risk age category for COVID-19.
“I think the attendance is going to be quite sparse,” she said. “I think that with the pressure to restart the economy came the pressure for childcare.”
Last week, the local health authority, CISSSO, announced that two more residents of CHSLD Lionel-Émond in Gatineau had died, raising the death toll for that facility to three, with four total in the entire Outaouais. The outbreak at the long term care home had risen to 18 confirmed cases on Saturday.
As of Monday, the Outaouais has 133 active cases (304 total cases, with 171 recovered) and nine hospitalizations, one of which is currently in intensive care. In addition, 49 CISSSO employees have been infected. CISSSO recently changed their reporting guidelines to show the number of cases per individual municipality, and MRC Pontiac has none. In the Municipality of Pontiac, which was included with the MRC under the previous reporting guidelines, the number of confirmed cases is listed at five or less.
Up to date information on the region can be found here: https://cisss-outaouais.gouv.qc.ca/language/en/18907-2/.

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