Mandatory masks add to challenging year for Quebec high school students

Ethan Mackay isn’t looking forward to wearing a mask all day, every day. 

Starting Thursday, all secondary school students and staff will have to wear masks indoors at all times in the province’s red zones, where the pandemic surge is at its worst. 

Mackay, who is in Grade 11 at James Lyng High School in red-zoned Montreal, has ADHD and says wearing a mask gets in the way of his learning. 

“It’s going to be very distracting for me, especially in math class,” he said. 

Under the new restrictions, students in Grade 10 and 11 will also pivot to a hybrid form of schooling, where they will be physically in school only one day out of two in order to reduce class sizes.

While many parents and experts back the decision to require masks in the classroom, high school students in red zones are in a precarious situation, as a faraway government creates rules that have an impact on everyday life. 

“The problem is, some of us take off our masks because it’s hard to breathe in them,” said Nathan Nyandoro, a Grade 10 student at Westmount High School. 

Students are supposed to stay within their class bubbles, but Mackay says several students at his school ignore the rules at lunch, taking off their masks and mingling with students from other classes.

Westmount High’s Kaeli Waugh says she’s relieved students will have to wear masks since some students don’t follow the rules in the hallways at her school, too, getting close to students who aren’t in their class bubble.

Raina Cyrus, a Grade 9 student at Vincent Massey Collegiate, says people from around the school neighbourhood have approached her and her friends — some even taking photos — when they are walking in a group together. 

“It kind of makes us feel nervous, because we were eating lunch and we were wearing a mask,” Cyrus said.

Although requiring masks in the classroom is viewed as a positive step in containing the spread of the virus, the rules also present new challenges in what is already a difficult time  — potentially aggravating learning disabilities, as well as feelings of isolation and anxiety.

At what cost?

According to the president of Quebec’s pediatricians association, studies show that class participation will decrease if all students are wearing masks. 

“Kids with hearing problems, or those with ADHD, they will certainly have much more problems with the mask in school,” said Dr. Marc Lebel.

The association released a statement Monday, saying restrictive sanitary measures are creating serious problems for an entire generation of teenagers.

“The reality is they are not doing well and we don’t hear enough about that,” said Dr. Marie-Claude Roy, a pediatrician at the CIUSSS de l’Estrie and a member of the board of directors of the pediatricians association.

“There are epidemics of drug use, cyber addiction, anxiety disorders, eating disorders. We work very, very hard in the clinic every day with these teenagers who are not doing well.”

“There are hardly any teenagers who have been hurt by the disease [COVID-19] itself, but there are hundreds if not thousands of adolescents who are suffering because of the public health measures that have been in place for six months,” Dr. Roy said.

Ethan Mackay, who is in Grade 11 at James Lyng High School in red-zoned Montreal, has ADHD and says wearing a mask gets in the way of his learning.  (François Sauvé/Radio-Canada)

The association says schools are not responsible for the second wave of COVID-19, but rather community transmission.

And Dr. Roy says taking away socialization and sports has left many young people demotivated.

Masks for elementary school too?

Still, many people are happy that the wearing of masks will be enforced in high schools.

Heidi Yetman, president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, wishes it had been done sooner.

With cases up over 1,000 per day in the province, she said, it appears as though the government is reacting to the situation rather than trying to prevent it from happening in the first place.

“I think that teachers are scratching their heads right now wondering, ‘Why is it just high school?’ We know through research that children are big carriers of COVID-19,” Yetman said.

“Why aren’t we being proactive and making sure that all students in high schools across this province are wearing masks in classes for, I would even say, yellow zones and orange zones?”

Many teachers have been calling for masks to be mandatory since the start of the year.

Under changes the province announced Monday, high school students will be required to wear masks in classrooms in Quebec’s red zones. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Goal is to keep schools open, premier says

Quebec Premier François Legault said Monday the province is working to keep schools open in red zones while protecting the health-care network.

As of Oct. 2, there were 1,423 active COVID-19 cases in Quebec schools, across the province’s network of 3,089 public and private schools.

The situation could get a lot worse if the province doesn’t keep tightening health restrictions, he said.

Some experts, however, believe the province should be applying stricter measures to people of all ages to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

“I actually do believe that medical masks should be worn in schools,” said Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist at the McGill University Health Centre.

Children and youths up to age 19 make up about 10 per cent of cases. About half of those are aged zero to nine, he said, and even if they don’t get very sick, they are passing it on to others — mainly their families.

“I think it would be most prudent, particularly because we are seeing this increase in the second wave, to have masks worn indoors at all times and schools are no exception.”

WATCH | Dr. Vinh explains why masks are needed: 

Infectious disease specialist and microbiologist Dr. Donald Vinh explains what the latest data shows and why increased measures should be applied to all ages. 2:39

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