Sask. teachers and kids deserve better than this inadequate back to school plan

The Saskatchewan government was presented with the choice between doing what was right and what was easy. They chose easy.

Government chose what was easy over what is right

Saskatchewan unveiled its eight-point back to school plan this week. (Weedezign/Shutterstock)

The Saskatchewan Safe Schools plan is inadequate. 

The Saskatchewan government was presented with the choice between doing what was right and what was easy. They chose easy.

I had been anxiously anticipating the release of the school reopening plan this week. With all the other provinces having released plans that Saskatchewan could learn from, I thought we would have a comprehensive and well thought out plan.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Education Minister Gord Wyant outlined eight areas of focus and said the plan provides "appropriate time to implement the required safety measures." 

With the release coming less than a month before the school year, schools have very little time to implement anything. Overhauling how schools are laid out, how they operate on a day-to-day basis and how students move through them seems like an impossible ask.


I want to talk about each of the eight points individually:

Safe Attendance 

The plan relies completely on self-screening measures. There are no temperature checks or health questionnaires required. 

Parents are asked to keep children home if they have any symptoms of illness. Parents, for the most part, are not medical professionals. Determining if a symptom like a mild sore throat is from a basic cold, allergies, or coronavirus is difficult.

The plan then directs people to use the online Self-Assessment Tool. Most of the questions in this tool screen for severe symptoms. One asks if any of a long list of symptoms are present. If a parent answers yes to this question for their child, they are instructed to call Healthline. 

We know that the wait has been several hours to get through to Healthline in recent weeks. People are then sometimes told to wait for a call back to schedule a visit to the test centre for a swab. That has been taking days. They then receive an appointment for a few days later.  

This means kids may lose an entire week of school (and their parents a full week of work) every time they get a stuffy nose. How do they access education during this time period? How are parents going to be supported to stay home with these kids? 

Safe Transportation

With no plans to decrease school bus capacity or add extra buses, there are likely to be 40 to 50 kids on the average school bus. 

School buses have essentially no ventilation without open windows. We are asking kids to pack in tighter than in an airplane. 

The bus is to be cleaned between each run, but this also takes time and supplies for the drivers. How are the extra work and the extra supplies being funded?  

The plan provides only one alternative for parents: drive them yourself.

Safe Access

The plan calls for dedicated entrance and exit doors, and arrows like you've seen in the supermarket. 

Again, there is no additional funding to cover even this most basic measure.  

Staggered recess, lunch and class transition times are a great idea, but there is little time for schools to now make a plan for this. Co-ordinating the flow of several hundred students is not as simple as snapping your fingers and making it so.  

If you consider nine grades of children in a typical elementary school, staggering their starts by five minutes adds 45 minutes to the school day. How are we going to ensure teachers are appropriately compensated for this additional time?

Safe Facilities

The government says it will provide hand sanitizer to schools. Increased cleaning and availability of hand sanitizer is an excellent strategy. 

Physicians across our province have implemented this from the onset of coronavirus. We very quickly learned that this is expensive.

The province says $40 million saved from the last school year will be used on costs associated with the return, but did not specify how that would be used. Why is there no new funding allocated to this, the most basic and critical component of the plan? 

We are also asking teachers to "maintain hygiene of all frequently-touched surfaces and objects such as toys and classroom equipment." Small kids touch everything. Half of it somehow ends up in their mouths like there is an unavoidable magnetic attraction.  

In an already bursting classroom, how can a teacher do their job (of teaching our kids) while trying to keep track of every item that is touched and ensuring it is sanitized before another kid gets there?

Safe Classrooms

Saskatchewan's classrooms were already bursting at the seams. With up to 30 children in small classrooms, creating a two-metre separation may be physically impossible. 

Why was there no consideration for decreased class sizes or staggered in-person and online learning? This would require extra teachers and extra funding, something our government made very clear they were not willing to provide. 

Our children will be told to not touch, share, or play with each other. It is hard to argue that is anywhere near normal. 

The province says physical distancing will be encouraged in classrooms, but does not plan to reduce class sizes. (BlurryMe/Shutterstock)

Safe supports

This section is extremely vague and essentially just says school divisions have to find supports and offer them to their families. 

The Ministry of Education's only contribution here is to continue to work with Kids Help Phone. Again, there is not a single new support or additional dollar available. 

The government has said repeatedly they are concerned about kids' mental health and well-being if they do not go back to school. 

It appears they are not worried enough about the mental health of our children to offer them any new supports.

Safe Activities

Again, we see a "plan" with no actual details. Extracurricular activities may or may not be allowed at some point in time.

Safe Alternatives

The plan includes four levels/scenarios where the way schools operate will change. 

There are no details on what would trigger a change from one level to the next. No specifics are provided at all.  

The minister himself commented that there was "no real threshold." 

 With five months between schools closing and Sept. 1, how is this the best we could do?

Masks are not everything

I want to be very clear that I think masks are important, but are not the ONLY component in creating safe schools.  

We have to consider the 3 Cs: closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places with many people nearby and close-contact settings.  

These three things are known to increase the risk of transmission of coronavirus. All three are present in spades in our schools. The government's plan does not adequately address even one of them.  

If they are going to knowingly put our kids and teachers into a high-risk situation, then at least give them masks. If they want to avoid mandatory masks at all costs, then they need to actually invest some time and money into finding solutions to all three of the Cs above instead.

Our teachers deserve better. Our kids deserve better.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Dr. Carla Holinaty is a family physician in Saskatoon. She practices out of the Academic Family Medicine clinic at West Winds Primary Health Centre.