Education Minister Jean-François Roberge comes out of the first wave of COVID-19. By carrying out the Prime Minister’s decisions, he put his relations with the network to the test. Is his handling of the crisis akin to “improvisation” or a “heroic epic”? Back on the major decisions that have marked the last few months.
March 12, 2020
A “concentrate of chaos”
In the morning, Prime Minister François Legault convenes a meeting of his crisis cell. The World Health Organization has just declared a pandemic and its teams understand that they are heading towards “a shutdown total ”from Quebec.
In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford announces the closure of schools. In the Honoré-Mercier building of the Quebec National Assembly, public health representatives, including the national director, Horacio Arruda, stress the importance of reducing social contact and present various options to the head of government and to his teams.
Prime Minister decides: schools will close. It remains to be seen “when and how it will be announced,” said behind the scenes.
The entourage of François Legault feels ready, “95%”, to announce the closure of the schools as of the following Monday, to give schools time to prepare.
At 11:45 a.m., François Legault took his place in the Evelyn-Dumas room of the National Assembly. With the Minister of Health, Danielle McCann, and the Minister responsible for Seniors and Caregivers, Marguerite Blais, he is conducting his first “press briefing concerning the situation in Quebec with regard to COVID-19”.
Quebec is in “emergency mode,” he said before banning gatherings of more than 250 people. A journalist questions him about the closure of the schools. “We have not gone there, but at this time, we can not exclude anything,” replied the head of government cautiously.
At the exit of the Council of Ministers, a few hours later, the Minister of Education, Jean-François Roberge, repeats the official instruction: “We are not asking to close schools at this time. “
Meanwhile, in France, where she is attending a conference, the president of the Montreal Association of School Principals (AMDES), Hélène Bourdages, is on the phone with the Deputy Minister of Education, Éric Blackburn, and the director general of the Montreal School Board (CSDM), Robert Gendron. The discussions, which stretch until the early hours, are tense.
“They were both telling me that they did not have the authority to close the schools, that it was public health that could make this decision. “
Despite government orders, several private schools and school boards say they will close the next day.
It becomes obvious to Mme Bourdages and colleagues that the majority of students, teachers and other staff will be absent on Friday, regardless of the decision of Quebec or the school boards. “People were furious” in the network, she says.
The day is a “concentrate of chaos”. This confusion is reflected in the CSDM. The leaders emailed the 115,000 students at 9:45 p.m. to let them know there will be school the next day. An hour later, a new shipment announces the opposite.
Jean Godin, director of De Arc-en-Ciel school in Laval, is also involved in this “waltz of hesitation”, over which he has no control. Already, he’s managing emails and calls that are pouring in everywhere and trying to reassure his staff – although he himself has no idea what is in store for him. Despite the panic he is beginning to see, he still believes he is managing “a weekend affair.” Like “a big snowstorm,” he illustrates.
March 13, 2020
“The most difficult decision”
In Quebec City, François Legault’s entourage notes that the school closure movement is “racing itself”.
“We lost a little bit control of the sequence …”, recognizes a government source.
When he came to the media at 11:30 am, the Prime Minister prepared to announce “the hardest decision” he had to make, insists one of his closest advisers.
“It was brutal. We were going fast, we were going very fast, ”recalls another source in Quebec. So quickly, that the issue was not discussed in the cabinet, or even with Minister Roberge. The decision is not an “educational one,” said the prime minister. Rather, it is “a health emergency decision”, attests those around him.
“The government has made the decision, starting next Monday, to close all schools,” says François Legault. At his side, the Minister of Education specifies that the teachers and students will be “on vacation” until March 30.
In his office in Laval, Jean Godin jumps when he hears the word “vacation”. “I was angry because I heard at the same time Ontario, which was starting to organize itself for distance education, and I said to myself:” My god, and we, we do nothing? “”, says the director. He knows that he will not be able to count on his staff for the next two weeks. “By saying that the teachers were on vacation, the minister saw us both legs. “
Eric (fictitious name) also had a hard time understanding that the minister is announcing vacations for everyone. This director of a school in the regions has requested anonymity, because he does not have the authorization of his school board to speak in the media.
“It really came to handicap us, because we could have put things in place, remote monitoring of students, for example. But there, as director, I no longer had any leverage. It’s crazy, the impact it had on the rest of things, “he laments.
“Perhaps the word” vacation “was not the right one,” government sources agree. But you have to put it in context, they insist. On that day, four cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Quebec. Faced with this unprecedented situation, there was a form of denial, the hope that it would not last too long.
Above all, the minister wanted to be reassuring, insists those around him. “He had in mind:“ for a couple of weeks, don’t go in fear ”. “He didn’t want parents to expect there to be a whole distance education system going on right away, because” it is very heavy and long. ” Especially since the ministry had a ten-year delay to catch up, sources in Quebec point out.
The closing of schools for two weeks is welcomed with relief in the network. But the gap is widening quickly between the public and the private network, which offers distance education for its students from the first days.
“The public network cannot keep up,” said the president of the Autonomous Teaching Federation, Sylvain Mallette.
Tensions quickly build up between school administrators, who want to get everyone back to work, and teachers’ unions, who repeat that they are on vacation. The two parties are awaiting a plan to end the crisis from Quebec. They will be disappointed.
At the same time, principals have to work miracles. Quebec asked them, on Friday, to organize emergency child care for Monday morning. It’s the start of a long marathon. The government recognizes that it was a “real tour de force”.
March 22, 2020
The “no man’s land“
In his office, Eric still juggles with a thousand and one questions. He works like crazy to organize emergency child care and develop protocols for a possible return to class. He lives “a lot of stress” because he has practically no information: the long-awaited plan does not happen.
He learns on television that the closure of schools extends until 1er May and that Quebec will send non-compulsory educational kits to students.
Policy makers are confident. At this point, they really believe that, the 1er May, “We are going to be passed through [de la crise] “, Says one behind the scenes.
For Eric begins a long period of trial and error which he describes as “no man’s land”. He advances in the fog. Without a precise plan of Quebec, he does what he can, which forces him to do and undo his work several times, to adjust to the instructions that arrive in a dropper.
For teachers, the organization of work “was left a lot for everyone for several weeks,” confirms Josée Scalabrini, president of the Federation of Teaching Unions (FSE-CSQ).
She understands that teachers must follow up as much as possible and taking into account each person’s realities. But “some teachers had their children at home, others took care of their parents. They had other things to manage than school, “she said.
In the Laurentians, Pascal Fréchette, a social teacher at Cap Jeunesse high school, sees his e-mail filling up even before the press briefing is finished. Parents want to know what’s going to happen. “I understand them, I was as worried as they were. But I didn’t know more. We learned the information at the same time as them, in the daily press briefings! “
He is far from feeling on “vacation”. With his colleagues, he questions himself about the matter that he will have to sacrifice during a possible return to class and about the weighting. He suspects that we are going to distance education, but he has no idea what form it will take. He turns to his direction, which turns to the school board, which turns itself to the ministry.
April 10, 2020
Panic on board
The Prime Minister launched a bomb at a press briefing: “We can not rule out reopening schools and daycare centers before May 4. “
The reaction was immediate: parents, teachers and opposition parties rose up. An online petition calling for the continued closure of schools and daycare centers has collected nearly 150,000 signatures.
“I said to the cabinet [du ministre Roberge] : “It’s completely stupid, why didn’t you tell us about it?” Remembers Josée Scalabrini, president of the FSE.
For Jean Godin, in Laval, it’s “panic”. It is not even possible to “imagine” opening schools before the beginning of May, for both public health and logistical reasons. “The deadline was far too short, it was impossible! “
The director then takes the full measure of the distance that separates Quebec from the education network. “This is where we felt it was starting to get out of hand, that [le ministre de l’Éducation] was not listening to the network. “
Although the Prime Minister’s statement sounds like a “test balloon”, it is nothing, we are assured in Quebec. Nowhere in the Prime Minister’s notes is it written that he should make this assumption.
However, we must start preparing society for deconfinement, we say in the Honoré-Mercier building. However, the wave of resistance upsets decision-makers, who take the measure of the challenge that deconfinement will represent.
April 27, 2020
The “suicide bombers”
In a press briefing, François Legault announced the reopening of primary schools and daycare centers on May 11 and 19, outside the metropolitan area and in the greater Montreal region respectively. A wave of concern is again shaking the population.
We are seen as “suicide bombers because we are the only place in North America that [va] open schools, ”a government source recalls. “We have an absolutely incredible headwind. “
Behind the scenes, Minister Roberge, directors of public health and Minister Delegate for Health and Social Services, Lionel Carmant, keep waving red flags. In private, pediatricians send out alarm signals. “Mental health and physical integrity [des enfants], that was the concern, “sums up a source.
Eric is delighted to be back in class, but, once again, he groped. Since returning to class is voluntary, everything must be reviewed. He sends surveys to parents to find out who comes back, who will come back later, who takes school transportation, who stays in the daycare service. He redesigns the premises, installs arrows on the ground, adopts protocols. He works from 6 am to 10 pm almost every day that week, “without seeing the light at the end of the tunnel”.
Through it all, he plays psychologists by reassuring parents and staff. “I think of one of my teachers, she is rock solid in normal times. But there she was completely panicked. She thought she was going to die at school with COVID. “
In Laval, Jean Godin also has cold sweats. He welcomes the news in a positive way for the students, because he worries about several of them, but he finds this announcement “utopian”, because of the sanitary rules to be respected. Above all, he considers it to be “a stroke of the sword”, because he suspects that the most vulnerable students will not return to school if it is done on a voluntary basis. Internal polls prove him right.
In parallel, he organizes distance education for those who will not return to class. This is another daunting task. Without forgetting that we must also prepare for the start of the following year, “as if nothing had happened!” “
The announcement of the resumption of classes is all the more surprising for unions and management that it occurs four days before the conclusion of the work of 14 think tanks set up by Quebec.
Most of these groups have only met once or twice. Short-circuited, they stop meeting before they have even produced a report. “I have a colleague who is still requesting the list of committees. We’re kidding that he’s going to have it for Christmas, “said Hélène Bourdages of AMDES.
Jean-François Roberge was dispatched to the media in the afternoon to explain the plan to reopen the schools. But he did not participate in the Prime Minister’s press conference. His absence shocked the network.
In schools, many are beginning to wonder whether the minister has control of the file or whether he is “guided by the prime minister’s office”.
At the same time, the decision was made in Quebec not to reopen secondary schools. It’s a “ no brainer “Said the Prime Minister’s entourage.
Publicly, François Legault explains that these older students are better suited to distance education. Behind the scenes, there is a fear above all of running out of premises and staff. We want to use the classrooms and the secondary staff to help the primary.
Prime Minister’s troops still congratulate themselves on having “the political courage” to reopen schools. Maintaining the closure would have been much easier in their opinion, from a political and health point of view.
May 14, 2020
The Montreal exception
In Montreal, opposition to the opening of schools is intensifying and manifesting itself on several fronts.
The Association of English School Boards of Quebec is leading the sling: it will be up to each of them to decide if it opens its schools, she said. An arm wrestling is engaged.
On another front are the unions, noisy and worried about the teaching staff. In government, there is concern about the “unwillingness” that could manifest itself on the ground. The “puzzle”, says those around Legault, will be “appalling”.
Several teachers are beginning to question the stance taken by their union because they believe it damages their image. “We were paid for weeks to stay at home. In a context where many people had lost their jobs, now was not the time to try to feel sorry for them. It looked like a bunch of spoiled babies, “said a teacher on condition of anonymity.
In Quebec, thinking about Montreal schools is complicated by the frequent trips between the metropolis and its suburbs, where parents, teachers and health workers live. But above all, the health situation is not improving in Montreal. Quebec is getting ready to pass the 4,000 dead mark.
“There is a debate: is it worth opening at the end of May, for three weeks? Remembers a source. Especially since the short delay before the end of the school year would not allow parents to have time to see if things are going well. The Prime Minister concludes that he will not succeed.
In Laval, Jean Godin breathes a sigh of relief when François Legault announces that schools in the greater Montreal region will remain closed. He is no less sad: he has worked so hard with his colleagues and feels that they are starting to be discouraged.
But it is clear that this time, despite all the good will of his staff, he is not ready. And he is worried. He doesn’t even have enough Purell to make it to the end of the year. In terms of hygiene and sanitation, it’s “risky,” he says. He then focused on distance education, which became compulsory after two months of vagueness and volunteering.
June 1, 2020
The straw that broke the camel
Once again, it is in the media that actors in the education network learn that they have less than a week to set up “educational camps” for vulnerable students.
Minister Roberge’s exit causes a new education storm. For many, it is “the drop that overflows the vase”.
“We were completely discouraged, speechless,” sighs director Jean Godin. He swallows his frustration and goes back to work. Same thing for Eric. The directors send new surveys to parents, repatriate and reassign staff, organize timetables…
Meanwhile, the representatives of the school directors and the directors general of the school boards warn the minister: he must abandon his project.
“I have never seen so many dissatisfied people,” says Hélène Bourdages. We have reached the threshold of disobedience. Our members tell us, “The next deal, I’m not doing it. I’m going to save my skin. ” “
Two days later, Minister Roberge steps back: the catch-up camps will be optional.
The most proactive directors, like Jean Godin and Éric, feel ironically penalized for their efficiency. Several schools put the camps aside, but they can no longer back down. They have already announced to parents that these camps are being held and have registered. ” It’s horrible. Yes, that’s the word: awful, “says Jean Godin.
In addition, the directors “all agree” that these camps are worthless, adds Eric. “It has no value, except to offer a daycare service to give a break to parents. It’s not in three weeks that students will make gains in terms of learning. “
School principals have never looked forward to the summer vacation so impatiently. “I can tell you that we are deeply tired and discouraged in the face of this minister who does not consult us and does not consider us,” sighs Jean Godin.
In Quebec, the exasperation of directors and unions fueled speculation, which sent Jean-François Roberge to purgatory in a possible cabinet reshuffle.
But his relatives close ranks. After all, he is an “early member” of the CAQ, one insists. He had the “courage” to plan to return to school in a context which was very hostile to him, government sources also repeat.
“Let us remember the critics who said that we were dangerous madmen who wanted to open schools,” insisted one of them. “We have made our lives complicated, but the children are happy, the teachers are happy, the parents are happy,” said one in Quebec.
The work of Jean-François Roberge, because it is so exhausting, is nothing less than a “heroic epic”.