Sask. government tightens grip on school divisions, legally directs all to drop mandates
Boards welcome consistency, while teachers’ union calls it ‘heavy-handed’
The Ministry of Education is taking its recommendation for Saskatchewan school divisions to lift their COVID-19 mandates one step further.
In a letter to school boards last Friday obtained by CBC News, Education Minister Dustin Duncan gave written direction — as per section 4.02 of The Education Act — that legally requires divisions to listen to the government's instructions. That includes dropping the mandatory masking in schools starting next month.
"While the face covering [public health order] will no longer be in place, schools should continue to be mask friendly," Duncan wrote. "Schools may feel free to encourage mask use while respecting individual choices regarding masks based on one's own risk assessment."
Shawn Davidson, president of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, said he and many of his members welcome the consistency across the province.
"It just provides a little bit of additional clarity to the boards of education about what the expectation from the government is," he said.
Before the public health orders — such as proof-of-vaccination or a negative test and mandatory masking — were in place, school divisions across the province were tasked with coming up with their own requirements with guidance from local medical health officers, Davidson said.
"Those differences between divisions really did sow at times confusion in the minds of some of our school communities, parents and families," he explained. "Now, there is that provincewide consistency — a clear message to parents that these health directives are being lifted."
Following the government's advice
In the wake of the minister's letter, the Saskatchewan Rivers Public School Division (SRPSD) in Prince Albert said it has chosen to comply with the province's recommendations, despite still awaiting advice from its local medical health officer.
Robert Bratvold, the SRPSD's director of education, said the division has lifted its proof-of-vaccination requirement and will do the same with masking as the public health order lifts at the end of the month.
"The [SRPSD] board respects the minister's directive and the division will ensure that schools are mask friendly," Bratvold wrote in an email to CBC News. "Masks will be worn or not worn by individual choice, based on their assessment of their own needs."
At a meeting on Monday afternoon, Saskatoon's Catholic school board voted in favour of lifting its COVID-19 proof-of-vaccination or negative test for employees, trustees and other individuals.
Students and their families are expected to receive a note from the school division on Tuesday, outlining that decision along with its plans on masking next month, a Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools spokesperson said.
Teachers' union calls minister's letter 'heavy-handed'
Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, said the minister's letter came across as "heavy-handed" after months of being told that school divisions need to focus on making public health decisions on a case-by-case and local basis.
"This directive takes away [school divisions'] ability to respond in a global pandemic," Maze said. "It's a strange kind of one-size-fits-all measure that everybody [across Saskatchewan] has to get rid of masks, even though it's not science-based."
1/7 Lifting mask mandates and other public health measures while so few children are vaccinated puts them disproportionately at risk. <br>Mask-wearing reduces the risk of indoor transmission, especially in schools and other group settings. <a href="https://twitter.com/AdrianaLaGrange?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@AdrianaLaGrange</a> <a href="https://t.co/fYM3BvasbR">https://t.co/fYM3BvasbR</a>—@CanPaedSociety
Last week, the Canadian Paediatric Society took to Twitter — in the wake of the Alberta government also choosing to lift its mask mandate in schools — with a reminder that masking reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission indoors, such as in school settings.
"Lifting mask mandates and other public health measures while so few children are vaccinated puts them disproportionately at risk," the CPS wrote.
"We should be doing everything possible to reduce the risk of virus transmission in schools, and avoid the potential for further disruptions to in-person learning."
Local health officials could reinstate measures
Should a local medical health officer declare a COVID-19 outbreak at a school after the public health orders are lifted, Premier Scott Moe said measures — such as mandatory masking — could be reinstated until the situation is under control. However, he insinuated it would be as a last resort.
"As we find our way to more accessible public places — and that includes schools — the default position should not be to have a number of public health restrictions in place," Moe said in an interview on CBC Radio's The Morning Edition Monday.
LISTEN | Premier Scott Moe talks about ending COVID-19 public health orders:
While Maze recognizes that school divisions have the ability under their local medical health officer to bring back COVID-19 measures, he said that a recent lack of public data on cases and hospitalizations make it difficult for senior administrators to help make decisions.
"We've lost all ability to be proactive and instead are relegated to being reactive on finding out through [school absences] or through reports that are up to a week old," Maze explained. "We're kind of going backwards."
With files from Stefani Langenegger