ST-JEAN-SUR-RICHELIEU, Que. — Quebec schoolchildren were greeted by their teachers with smiles and squirts of hand sanitizer on Monday as the province became the first to reopen some schools following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Daycares and elementary schools outside the Montreal area were allowed to open, with a maximum of 15 students per classroom and a new set of rules in place.
At Ecole St-Gerard in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, southeast of Montreal, the mood seemed upbeat as children posed for parents' photos on coloured dots painted on the ground outside the school to indicate sufficient distancing.
Marie Fortin watched as her twin seven-year-old daughters each received a spray of disinfectant from a staff member wearing a mask. She said sending her kids to school was "important for their routines."
She said she felt reassured after seeing all the preparations done by staff, including sectioning off classrooms with tape, devising a game around handwashing, and cleaning and disinfecting.
"We don't feel unsafe at all," she said.
The province has said attendance is not mandatory, and one school bus pulled in with a lone student aboard.
Marie-Claude Audet, a special education teacher, said about half the school's parents had elected to send their children. The school is bringing them back gradually, beginning Monday with kindergarten and first grade.
At a second elementary school in the city, a staff member could be seen trying to keep four young children apart on a playground during recess.
"Too close! Too close!" she said repeatedly as she broke up forbidden games of tag. Moments later, she led the small group in a game of passing a ball between them, as they stood several metres apart.
Students are being met by staff wearing masks and in some cases face shields, and they are being told to follow physical-distancing rules and wash their hands frequently.
Libraries, gyms and cafeterias were closed, and children were expected to spend most of the day at their desks. Through the windows at St-Gerard, children could be seen sitting at different ends of a classroom that had been divided into sections using yellow tape.
But staff at the province's elementary schools promised they would find ways to make the day enjoyable.
At St-Gerard, children in the schoolyard ran around playing "walk the dog," carrying hockey sticks with pictures of dogs attached — combining a game and a tool to illustrate proper distancing, a teacher said.
Simon Descoteaux, the principal of Ecole de la Primerose in Quebec City, said the school has been transformed to take into account new health guidelines, but staff are welcoming children with a smile. They will ensure there is nothing "frightening" for the children, he said, adding that the revamped school will be fun and not a "prison."
Descoteaux said about two-thirds of the school's 500 children were expected back.
"People need to get back to a normal life," he said.
Marie-Odile Lessard, a mother at the school, said her son Jerome leapt out of bed that morning, eager to see his classmates.
"We're aware of all the things they'll have to do, distancing, washing hands to ensure a safe return, but we still feel good," she said.
Schools in the Montreal area, which continues to be hit hard by the novel coronavirus, will remain closed until at least May 25, while high schools and junior colleges won't be back until the fall.
Quebec has faced some pushback on the decision to reopen schools ahead of any other province, despite having the country's highest COVID-19 caseload by far.
Some educators and parents have raised questions over issues such as school bus transport, staff safety and the challenges of enforcing distancing requirements in classrooms.
But Premier Francois Legault has defended his decision, noting the risk to young people is limited and that it's better to open things up gradually rather than all at once.
He said children, especially those with special needs, will benefit from seeing their teachers and classmates.
"Life needs to continue,'' Legault said when he announced the reopening.
He said there likely won't be a vaccine for over a year, and children can't be kept home until then.
Legault has said the situation will be closely monitored by public health officials, who won't hesitate to adjust the rules if needed.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2020.
— With files from Caroline Plante in Quebec City
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press