Sask. teachers say they're 'making decisions in the dark,' want more COVID-19 data as mandates lift
Masking, self-isolation if positive no longer required in schools as of Monday
As COVID-19 mandates lift in Saskatchewan, some teachers are calling for the provincial government to provide them with more detailed data to help inform their pandemic response in schools.
"Teachers and principals are making decisions in the dark," said Jeff Perry, president of the Regina Public Schools Teachers' Association.
Earlier this month, the province announced it would scale back its COVID-19 updates to once a week. It also stopped tracking outbreaks in schools, leaving it up to local health officials to assess outbreaks with information provided to them internally.
"What that's doing is making it impossible for [teachers] to make an informed decision or conduct a personal risk assessment," Perry said.
In the wake of the changes, Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, told CBC News that senior school administrators across the province felt like they "lost all ability to be proactive" against the spread of COVID-19.
Now, as school divisions are legally required to drop all masking and self-isolation requirements — as per a written directive from the minister of education — Perry said educators deserve a closer look at the most up-to-date data, so they can relay that to parents.
"We want to do our part, as teachers, to keep the community safe — but we require the tools to do it," he said.
When asked if it would consider passing along more updated information to school officials, the Ministry of Health replied to CBC News with a link to its weekly COVID-19 situation reports, noting that parents, teachers and school administrators can access data there.
"Epidemiological monitoring continues according to established processes for respiratory illnesses. Indicators include lab-confirmed cases, 811 calls, primary care visits, [emergency department] visits and hospitalizations," the ministry said in its emailed statement.
"These indicators continue to be monitored and contribute to routine surveillance for COVID-19."
The province added that it's prioritizing safety for students and staff through things such as increased sanitation and rapid tests.
It also encourages practising personal safety measures, like getting vaccinated and ensuring schools continue to be "mask-friendly environments."
Looking for new COVID-19 outbreak signs
Dr. Cory Neudorf — interim senior medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority and a professor at the University of Saskatchewan's department of community health and epidemiology — echoed the province, saying local health officials are now taking an approach in schools similar to a bad flu season.
With less case data to go off of, that means doctors are now looking for other indicators, such as absenteeism.
"We don't know what might be causing a certain condition in a school, but if we know that 10 per cent of the kids are gone — and the normal baseline is one or two per cent — that bears looking into," Neudorf said.
Should the COVID-19 infection rate appear to be rising in schools, local medical health officers would likely weigh factors like the number of people vaccinated before making a move, he said.
"When there's less reliable case data coming forward, you have to do a lot more qualitative assessment and look at the individual situation in a school before you call, 'Yes, this is an outbreak and this is the response that's needed.'"
Since the Omicron variant is much more transmissible than other strains of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, health officials are currently discussing what should now be considered a school outbreak, Neudorf said.
"What level does it have to get to before you start modifying what happens? When do you start doing things like move to virtual learning or requesting everybody be back to wearing masks? Those are criteria medical health officers are working on with school boards right now."
Neudorf says most people who contract the virus have some immunity for up to three months afterward. With the high number of people who have contracted it during the Omicron wave, he's hopeful that immunity will help carry many through until spring, when cases are expected to decline.