Mixed reactions to back-to-school plans in Regina and Saskatoon

Mask regulations in the four largest school divisions in Regina and Saskatoon have resulted in a mix of reactions from parents and students.

'People have opinions that they're pretty invested in,' says Regina mother about mask debate

Masks will be required for public and Catholic elementary school students in Regina and Saskatoon this school year. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Mask regulations in the four largest school divisions in Regina and Saskatoon have resulted in a mix of reactions from parents and students.

In all four back-to-school plans published on Monday, public and Catholic school divisions in the two cities made indoor masking mandatory in elementary schools while recommending masks in high schools.

Some parents have expressed their anger on social media about masks being mandatory in elementary schools, while others are relieved about the decision.

"I am so ecstatic and happy about it," said Christina Bacalso.

"I feel that that's the only way that we can keep our kids safe from the virus this fall."

The mother-of-three from Regina is particularly concerned about the delta variant as well as the recent rise in new COVID-19 cases.

Division among pro-mask and anti-mask groups

However, Bacalso also acknowledges the difference of opinion among parents when it comes to masks in schools.

"I think you're either on team mask or you're on team not-mask, and it seems that people have opinions that they're pretty invested in," she said.

Two of her children will go to St. Kateri Tekakwitha, one of the Catholic elementary schools in Regina.

According to the Regina Catholic School Division's return-to-school plan, around 80 per cent of their elementary school students are not fully vaccinated, with the majority currently not being eligible for an immunization shot.

Bacalso said masking is a simple solution, and her children are used to wearing masks.

"You would think my four-year-old would have an issue with it," she said.

"She can wear a mask, no-problem." 

Extreme cases on both sides, says Saskatoon mother

The debate around masks in schools also seems to divide Saskatoon parents.

Masks will be mandatory inside all elementary schools for students, staff and visitors, according to Saskatoon Public Schools. In high schools, however, masks are only "strongly recommended" for students.

"I wish it was mandatory in high schools as well," said Colleen Patterson.

The mother-of-two will experience both the mandatory as well as the recommended masking regulations, since her children will go to grade 8 and grade 10 within the public school system.

Patterson understands the divisiveness of the topic, but she is also "shocked by it."

"I know a number of people on my Facebook feed in real life, and I know that they're all very reasonable people," she said.

"But there's such a strong division between people."

According to the Saskatoon mother, she has seen extreme cases on both sides, parents supporting and not supporting masks in schools.

"I'm not sure where people have lost their reasonableness that we can all look at the same set of facts and just come to different decisions based on our own risk tolerance," she said.

"Last year was such a tough year for everybody, and we all want it to be over. But I really think each side has to have compassion."

Patterson's own son plans to wear a mask in high school, she said, because he is worried about his grand-mother who lives with the family.

Low vaccination rates among Saskatchewan teens

One of the reasons why Patterson supports masks in schools is the low vaccination rate among high school students in the province.

In Regina, around 60 per cent of high school students are fully vaccinated as of last week, according to the Regina Catholic School Division. 

According to Saskatchewan's Ministry of Health, 52 per cent of 12 to 17-year-olds in Saskatchewan have received both of their COVID-19 shots, meaning almost half of this age group is not fully vaccinated.

"That does make me a little nervous," said Regina high schooler Mercedes Phillips.

"It does sort of make me wonder if it is even safe to go back on Sept. 1."

Mercedes Phillips is a 16-year-old high school student in Regina. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

The 16-year-old is not surprised by the low vaccination numbers, she said, but they show her that the province is not out of the battle against COVID-19. 

"My age group isn't really stepping up to the plate to help solve this."

The student plans to wear a mask at Campbell Collegiate in Regina. Phillips said she will feel more safe and also sees it as a duty toward her peers and family to protect them as well.

Not all high school students in Saskatchewan agree on wearing masks, yet Phillips said she hasn't seen debates as aggressive as among some adults on social media, "completely trashing the other people's opinions."

"They kind of just fight amongst each other, which doesn't really solve any problems." 

Mixed feelings about masks, says Saskatoon high schooler

In Saskatoon, public schools across the city are getting ready to welcome back their students in September. 

One of them is high schooler Graeme Hopkins, who has been pleading with Saskatoon Public Schools in an online petition to return to the standard semester timetable this fall.

Graeme Hopkins is going into grade 12 at Evan Hardy Collegiate in Saskatoon. He has started a petition asking Saskatoon Public Schools to return to the semester system this year. (provided by Graeme Hopkins)

Instead, the school division plans to implement a quarter schedule to reduce student interactions, according to Saskatoon Public Schools' Collegiate Back-to-school Handbook 2021-22.

Besides his disappointment with the timetable system, Hopkins also has mixed feelings about the recommended masking for high school students, he said.

A mandatory mask mandate "would be helpful," he said, but he doesn't think "it is quite necessary at this point." 

If numbers continue to rise, the student would most likely want to see masks becoming mandatory at collegiates, he said.

"Especially if it [was] an alternative to a school closure."