Benefits of removing masks in Quebec classrooms outweigh risks, Boileau says


“The removal of masks facilitates education and socialization, encourages shyer children to speak up more, and helps those with language issues to learn more easily.”

Article content

Calling it a “calculated risk,” the public health directors for Quebec and Montreal argued on Wednesday the time is right for children in elementary and high schools to stop wearing masks in class once they return from March break.

advertisement

Article content

Some health experts countered it’s an unnecessary risk given the amount of mingling and traveling children are likely to do, and counseled extending mask usage until the situation has stabilized.

Given the large number of Quebec children already infected with Omicron, the reduced numbers of patients in hospitals and infected health-care workers, and a gradual slowing of cases in schools, “we no longer think it’s necessary for them to wear masks when seated in class,” said Quebec interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau at a Montreal news conference.

Data compiled by researchers at St-Justine Hospital and Université Laval indicates close to three million people were infected with Omicron in Quebec as of Jan. 31, including 35 to 40 per cent of school-age children, Boileau said. That rate of infection, combined with a 93 per cent double vaccination rate for high school children and 40 per cent for elementary students, allowed experts to conclude that the risk of hospitalization for those age groups was very low and masks could be removed.

advertisement

Article content

Discussions with pediatricians, psychologists, psycho-educators and counsellors, as well as parent groups, convinced them that “there are more benefits at this stage in removing the masks,” Boileau said. “The removal of masks facilitates education and socialization, encourages shyer children to speak up more, and helps those with language issues to learn more easily.”

Boileau stressed, however, that Omicron is still with us and masks are essential, which is why children will have to wear them while moving from class to class, in gym and on school buses. Transmission risks are reduced when children are seated at their desks, Boileau said. Mask mandates in public places will not be removed until numbers improve, and teachers are still advised to wear their masks, but can take them off at a distance to teach, he added.

advertisement

Article content

Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious-diseases specialist at the McGill University Health Center, said the time is not right for a sudden easing of mask regulations.

“The timing is concerning, because what’s going to happen during spring break, now that there are less restrictions, is that people will travel. There is a likelihood they may acquire COVID and then they may bring that back into the classrooms after the spring break.”

With only three per cent of children triple vaccinated, and if ventilation in classes is not adequate, “what’s protecting them? We’re essentially leaving the kids unprotected.”

The advent of the more transmissible BA.2 sub-strain of Omicron, which can infect those who have already contracted the original form, is another risk, Vinh said.

advertisement

Article content

“I’m not sure what science is being followed,” he said. “I hope it’s not Sesame Street science, because it’s not making any sense.”

Vinh added that as far as he knows, there is no scientific data proving masks are harmful to children.

Experts have counseled that children shouldn’t make the transition from wearing masks abruptly, so the spring break will allow them to get used to living without masks before returning to school, Boileau said.

Montreal public health director Dr. Mylène Drouin noted at a separate news conference Wednesday that children already often see each other without masks outside of school, so spring break will not necessarily spur a large spike.

Quebec’s workplace safety board announced employees no longer have to wear masks at their workstations as of Feb. 28 as long as they are two meters from other workers or separated by barriers. Vinh was critical of the move, saying it could lead to super-spreader events that once again overload the health-care system, postponing surgeries and procedures that have backlogged during the pandemic.

advertisement

Article content

Boileau counseled workers to use common sense, and continue to wear masks if their workplace environments are cramped or they feel vulnerable.

Marie-France Raynault, a senior medical strategist with Santé Québec, called on citizens to do as other cultures around the world do, and wear a mask if they have cold-like symptoms in order to protect others. And for those who have severe symptoms: “Stay home.”

On Wednesday, Quebec health authorities reported 17 COVID-19-linked deaths and listed 1,672 people in hospitals with the disease, a drop of 70. There were 102 patients in intensive care, a decline of five.

Earlier in the day, the Institut national d’excellence en santé et en services sociaux said projections for the next two weeks show the number of people in Quebec hospitals with COVID-19 should drop to 1,200, with the number of intensive care patients by that time being about 50.

advertisement

Article content

The Montreal Gazette’s Katelyn Thomas and The Canadian Press contributed to this report.

[email protected]

All our coronavirus-related news can be found at montrealgazette.com/tag/coronavirus.
For information on vaccines in Québec, tap here.
Sign up for our email newsletter dedicated to local COVID-19 coverage at montrealgazette.com/coronavirusnews.
Help support our local journalism by subscribing to the Montreal Gazette here.

    advertisement


Leave a Comment