Some Sask. school boards highly recommend mask use after province doesn't make it mandatory
Some boards more vociferous on the subject than others
An infectious disease epidemiologist says masks, while not mandatory in Saskatchewan, should still be on the table as an option for returning students and staff when schools open next month.
School boards acting on provincial guidelines agree, though some are more vociferous about it than others.
Ashleigh Tuite, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said the question of whether to require masks in schools is polarizing and challenging because there isn't a lot of data yet to support a move in either direction, since most countries shut schools down this past spring.
Still, even if a province's infection rate is low, Tuite recommends masking since young children are less likely to show symptoms of COVID-19.
"As long as there's some circulation of the virus in a community, I think that practising these public health measures and wearing masks is probably a good idea," she said.
"The concern is it's a long time to expect a child to wear a mask all day and they're gonna touch their face and they're going to contaminate it. I would point to other countries where young children are wearing masks all day in school and they tolerate it."
Phillippe Lagace-Wiens, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba's department of medical microbiology, said that "in situations with very low prevalence, the risk of masks to development and childhood well-being is likely greater than the benefit, which is already eroded by what will likely be very poor compliance.
"In a high prevalence setting, it may very well be worthwhile."
Saskatchewan's 27 school boards released individual back-to-school plans this week, after the province confirmed it would not require masks in schools, at least not initially.
For the most part, those local plans crib from general provincial guidelines, which state, "Except when in close contact with a student who is ill, masks and eye protection are not required. However, if an employee feels more comfortable wearing a mask while at work, they may bring their own."
The Ministry of Education has confirmed it will supply a total of six million masks to schools and many local plans specify that teachers and bus drivers will be supplied masks, including reusable cloth ones.
But some school boards are going a step further in strongly encouraging mask use among teachers and students, even if the province isn't requiring masks.
"Since some people carrying COVID-19 do not exhibit symptoms ... students are encouraged to wear their own masks at school when physical distancing is not achievable," Saskatoon Public Schools' plan says.
Special education teachers are "highly recommended" to use masks, the plan added.
Chinook School Division said voluntary use of masks "will be supported by Chinook and school administration."
Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools used more urgent language, saying it "strongly encouraged" students and staff to wear masks, even asking parents to train their kids before September.
"There is mounting evidence that the use of masks can be effective to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 when combined with other precautionary measures," said spokesperson Derrick Kunz when asked about the heightened language compared to other plans.
"When we ask ourselves, 'What are things within our control to help keep students and staff safe?' the use of masks and/or face shields is one tool in our toolbox. Federal chief public health officer Dr. Tam's recent announcement recommending masks for students 10 years of age and older supports our stance to strongly encourage the use of masks."
Prince Albert Catholic School Division similarly said mask use is "highly recommended."
'Some employees may feel safer with it'
Some school boards are acknowledging that mask use can both relieve and cause anxiety.
"Although PPE is not required, some employees may feel safer with it," the Good Spirit School Division plan stated. "By making masks available to those who want them, GSSD can reduce the anxiety of employees and, at the same time, the visibility of the masks is a reminder to all of the need to take precautions."
Lloydminster Public Schools Division said masking is generally not recommended for young children but that if families choose to have their children wear masks, "care should be taken that the children not be stigmatized."
Lloydminster also said it would monitor its access to mask supply, echoing a move made early in the pandemic by the Saskatchewan Health Authority, when it alleged that staff were stealing supplies.
The North West Public school division also said the anxiety of student and staff should be taken into account, "if masks need to be worn."
Education Minister Gord Wyant has said the province might reverse course and mandate masks if the COVID-19 situation in Saskatchewan worsens before classes restart in the first week of September.
with files from Janani Whitfield and The Morning Edition