Sask. gov't leaving it up to school boards to decide on masking
Not all school divisions are seeking a masking policy, education minister says
Saskatchewan's Ministry of Education outlined what mandatory masking in the province's schools would look like Tuesday, but did not require that step, leaving it up to individual school boards to decide.
"Education in Saskatchewan is very diverse," Education Minister Gord Wyant said in a news conference.
"We have schools ranging from four students to over 1,600 students. We need to consider what works for all facilities. So today we're providing guidance to ensure school divisions have the public health information they need to make their decisions for their local school divisions.
"While we know there's a number of school divisions that have expressed an interest in masking policies, not all have."
Schools announce mask plans
Soon after the announcement, two of the province's largest school boards, both in Saskatoon, announced they would proceed with a masking policy, although it was unclear in both cases whether the policy would kick in first thing next month.
Saskatoon Public Schools (SPS) said it would require students in Grades 4 to 12 to wear a mask in spaces where physical distancing is not possible.
"Masks will be recommended for prekindergarten to Grade 3 students in schools," according to an SPS release. "Masks will be required for all students on buses. Staff members, parents, caregivers, and visitors to schools will also be required to wear masks."
In its own release, Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools said it would be implementing the use of masks "consistent with directions outlined" Tuesday.
Regina Public Schools was next, on Twitter:
Regina Public Schools will be requiring all Grades 4 to 12 students to wear non-medical masks while at school & recommending that all kindergarten to Grade 3 students wear non-medical masks while at school. In both cases, this will apply when physical distancing is not possible. <a href="https://t.co/wm6xJRDdY5">pic.twitter.com/wm6xJRDdY5</a>—@RegPublicSchool
Ministry guidelines on masking
Wyant clarified that while decisions to enact masking policies would rest with school boards, they would need to consult public health officials.
For schools that make the move, Saskatchewan students in grades 4 to 12 would have to wear masks in hallways, buses and other high traffic areas if schools moved to a mandatory masking scenario, the ministry said in a release.
"For those students in grades 9 through 12, masks may be required in classrooms where it is not possible to maintain physical distancing or where students are outside of the cohort within their classroom, as well as all teachers and staff," it said.
The province's back-to-school plan released last week said masking "may be activated regionally or provincially based on the advice of our chief medical health officer" and include "mask usage as determined by the chief medical health officer."
What COVID-19 conditions might prompt a move to require masking remains unclear.
WATCH: <a href="https://twitter.com/StephTaylorCP?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@StephTaylorCP</a> asked Shahab today about what some might see as a contradiction in messaging of late on masks. Wyant answered first. And Shahab just didn't address the question specifically. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/skpoli?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#skpoli</a> <a href="https://t.co/w3XrKzvzjD">pic.twitter.com/w3XrKzvzjD</a>—@gqinsk
Top doc weighs in
Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, said it would be "reasonable" for schools to open next month with a masking policy in place.
"As long as we all keep doing what we're doing, we don't expect to see school opening have a big impact on COVID-transmission," Shahab said.
The doctor then had some advice for all school parents.
"Make sure your kids have a couple of masks. Make sure they keep a mask on at home, just to get used to it. Take it off and put it on safely. And take care of their masks themselves: wash it when you come home and hang it to dry."
Cohorting in elementary schools
Wyant confirmed the government has required schools to cohort elementary students into smaller groups.
"In high school settings where cohorting is more complex, school divisions will be encouraged to find creative solutions to move students in cohorts where possible," according to the release.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Saskatchewan NDP's education critic, Carla Beck, called on the chair of the legislature's human services committee to reconvene the group so that the NDP could talk face-to-face with members of the Saskatchewan Party government about the back-to-school plan.
"The last time that we had the opportunity to meet, that I had the opportunity to ask Minister Wyant some questions in the committee, was back when the legislature was still in session in June," she said.
"We had a lot of questions about the guidelines at that point — the guidelines that have not changed in any significant way since their plan was announced."
The government's back-to-school plan did require actions that the previous guidelines only provided as suggestions, such as the cleaning of school buses between each run.
Beck said there are still questions about who will pay for the extra work and supplies required.
Another group had called for masks
The pressure on the government to mandate masks continued Tuesday, with the Saskatchewan College of Family Physicians (SCFP) being the latest group to weigh in. The group sent a letter to Wyant, Premier Scott Moe and the Ministry of Health.
"The SCFP asks that school resumes at a minimum of Safe Schools Plan level two and includes a clear mask mandate for students and teachers. It is imperative that we take as many protections as possible for the safety of our families," college president Mark Cameron wrote.
The government's back-to-school plan outlined four different levels of operations, with schools geared to initially open under Level 1, which aims to create an atmosphere as close to normal as possible, and masks only being required if they reached Level 2.