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Legault assures Quebec won't reopen schools, daycares without weighing risks for kids


MONTREAL — Quebec Premier Francois Legault says he won't put children at risk after blowback from parents and teachers over talk of sending kids back to school and daycare in the coming weeks after an extended COVID-19 shutdown.

Legault apologized Saturday during his daily news conference for anyone who might have been upset about his comments Friday.

Quebec has cancelled classes until May 4 due to the coronavirus outbreak, but Legault suggested Friday that they could reopen ahead of that date — something that didn't sit well with some parents and teachers.

"I think that even in the next few months, when we will reopen the school, it's clear that some parents will be scared to send their children to school," Legault said.

"But what I want to be clear about the reopening of schools, is that it will not be done until we have, first, the agreement of the public health, and second, that I have personally the assurance that there's no risk for the children and for the teachers."

Quebec health officials announced 48 more COVID-19 deaths in the province on Saturday, bringing the total to 289. The province also announced 12,292 confirmed cases, with 778 hospitalizations, including 211 in intensive care.

As officials hope to reach the peak of COVID-19 cases in the near future, the province has begun laying the groundwork for various scenarios to resume economic activities and Legault said that includes what do with the children of working parents.

"Maybe the way I said it scared some people and I'm sorry about that, but the facts are that we have some scenarios before May 4," Legault said.

The notion of opening up schools and daycares in the coming weeks led to an emotional reaction from some.

Pierre Avignon, the chairman of a governing board at a Montreal school in the borough with the most COVID-19 confirmed cases, said many people are afraid things will move too quickly and people will be put at risk.

Avignon said physical distancing rules would be difficult to enforce at the elementary school with 900 students, noting there are rarely two metres between students.

One petition demanding the closure of daycares and schools until September had garnered more than 153,000 digital signatures as of Saturday afternoon, with supporters arguing that children and adolescents would be at risk.

Legault has said children have been shown to be less at risk of having coronavirus complications, and Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province's director of public health, said reopening of schools would mean that children would participate in the natural immunization of the population.

"Young people who could get the disease with almost no symptoms are like being vaccinated," Arruda said. "It is natural vaccination that will take hold, and it is important in society that a certain part of the population be vaccinated."

The Federation of Quebec Parents' Committees positioned itself as a "voice of reason," with federation president Kevin Roy saying he did not fear reopening schools as long as public health experts recommended it.

But the province's largest teachers' unions said Legault's comments smacked of "improvisation," with the Centrale des syndicats du Quebec, which represents 125,000 education sector employees, calling on the government to consult with members.

Sylvain Mallette, the president of the FAE teachers union, which represents 45,000 French-language teachers, warned that while children seem to be less impacted, they are often in contact with teachers — some of whom are over 60 and have auto-immune diseases or live with the elderly.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 11, 2020.

— with files from Michel Saba and Stephane Blais in Montreal.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version reported the number of hospitalizations as 668.

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