Saskatchewan education system prepping for COVID-19

The Saskatchewan School Boards Association, which represents the province's 27 school boards, said its member boards of education are working together with federal and provincial authorities on preparation. 

Moose Jaw school staff member is self-isolating and has been tested for COVID-19

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19. The sample was isolated from a patient in the U.S. (NIAID-RML via The Associated Press)

Saskatchewan schools are preparing to handle any potential cases of COVID-19.

At least one school staff member in Saskatchewan is in isolation. Earlier this week a staff member at École Palliser Heights School in Moose Jaw was tested for COVID-19 and is self-isolating until the test results are available.

According to an email sent to parents from the Prairie South School Division on March 12, the staff member is "doing well" and the division is working with the Ministry of Education and the Saskatchewan Health Authority to implement a response plan.

This includes having individuals who were in close contact with the staff member self-monitor to ensure they are symptom free and increasing disinfection of high-touch areas, with extra focus on common areas.

On Thursday, officials with the Ministry of Health announced the first presumptive case of COVID-19 was recorded in Saskatchewan.

Parents taking news in stride

Erin Hidlebaugh, chair of the school's community council, confirmed the email was sent to parents by the division's director of education Tony Baldwin. Hidlebaugh said she's relieved the school is taking the matter seriously.

"I'm just happy that the teacher has taken the measures and precautions to stay home from school," she said.

According to the email sent to parents, health officials have indicated school should continue as regularly scheduled and says, "there is no need for any additional measures at this time."

An email sent to parents from Director of Education Anthony Baldwin with the Prairie South School Division indicated a staff member at Ecole Palliser Heights is self-isolating and is being tested for COVID-19. (Supplied)

Hidlebaugh said that, for the most part, parents are taking the matter in stride. 

"There's no sense in panicking," she said. "We don't know if the teacher has it and, you know what, if they do, they're taking the precautions, but the kids have already been exposed, right? There's not much more we can do right now anyway."

She said everyone is practising good hygiene at the school, but that for now, as long as everyone is proactive, the situation should be under control.

"I'm sure there will be parents who do keep their kids home, I'm not choosing to do that," she said.

Baldwin said in an interview Friday that the employee had travelled to the U.S. recently and started to feel sick upon their return to Moose Jaw.

"We don't have any sense that this will be confirmed as a case of COVID-19 and even if it is, this is something that we're going to be managing in Prairie South and across the province for some weeks and perhaps months," he said. "We've got a good plan in place and we've had excellent support from the Ministry of Health throughout the process."

Baldwin said the staff member was tested after calling 811 and reporting their symptoms. He said this is the only employee he's aware of who has gone through the process.

"It's an unusual circumstance for us in school divisions, but it's something we're going to get through," he said.

Shawn Davidson, president of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, says decisions on event cancellations will 'vary from division-to-division depending on the different events that had been planned.' (CBC News)

The Saskatchewan School Boards Association, which represents the province's 27 school boards, said its members are working together with federal and provincial authorities on preparation. 

Association president Shawn Davidson said in a statement guidance related to event cancellations will "vary from division-to-division depending on the different events that had been planned," noting the well-being of students, staff and school communities is "top priority for all boards of education."

Field trips, gatherings cancelled at largest school divisions

Schools in other major urban centres are also taking extra precautions to keep staff and students safe after the arrival of COVID-19 in the province.

On Thursday, the government of Saskatchewan announced it has recorded its first presumptive case of COVID-19. (Hannah A Bullock and Azaibi Tamin/CDC)

The Saskatoon Public School Division, the province's largest, has taken steps including cancelling all large gatherings,  field trips, guest speakers, external presentations and tours.

The division has also cancelled all professional development, large gatherings, meetings for staff and upcoming open houses for unique programs. All cultural activities and events, like pipe ceremonies, feasts and round dances, have also been cancelled.

The division is currently reviewing procedures around parent-teacher conferences. 

On Friday, the Regina public school division announced it would also be cancelling all large gatherings and field trips for students.

"The most important thing for people to know is that we're in constant communication with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, the Ministry of Education and our No. 1 priority is student and staff safety," said Darren Boldt, the division's deputy director of student achievement. 

"That is the thing we're considering with every one of our decisions that we're making by the minute." 

Boldt said principals across the division recently met to discuss both the response to the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation sanctions and the presence of COVID-19 in the province, adding the division will be discussing whether or not to hold its monthly meeting going forward. 

According to the government of Saskatchewan, 285 people had been tested in the province for COVID-19 as of March 10, with 263 tests seeing negative results, one having a presumed positive results and 22 pending results.

Teachers taking precautions 

On Friday, the Regina Catholic School Division said the virus is not in the schools as far as they're aware, but announced it's pausing school assemblies and limiting all gatherings to no more than 250 people. 

"That messaging has just gone out to schools," said Twylla West, a division spokeswoman. "Of course, things are happening quickly and changing quickly, so that could be a different story by sometime next week."

She said the division is advising students to stay home if they're sick and asking those who have travelled to remember the Saskatchewan Health Authority's guidelines for self-quarantine.

"We continue to go by the advice and the latest recommendations from the Saskatchewan Health Authority and the chief medical officer, who have emphasised to us at this time there is no imminent need for school closures. That's been the big question."

She said the RCSD is also using "influenza-season cleaning protocols," which means light switches, doorknobs and other high-use surfaces are being cleaned on a more consistent basis.

Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools said it has also put enhanced preventive measures in place and increased cleaning of commonly touched surfaces. The division also noted it is in the process of cancelling all large gathering and field trips for students and staff.

Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, says teachers are no stranger to trying to stay healthy while in Saskatchewan schools. (CBC)

Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, said its members are no stranger to trying to protect themselves against illness.

"We know that teachers are regularly in contact with young ones who don't always have the best hand-washing policies  … so we know our members usually are quite avid hand-washers," he said.

Maze said it is the responsibility of employers to ensure that proper precautions are being made and the right information is being shared with teachers and staff.

"It's definitely on everybody's minds," he said. "Right now, it's just precautionary measures. Making sure that everybody has good hygienic practices with washing hands and that sort of thing."

Universities preparing for possibility of remote classes

Post-secondary institutions in the province are also taking steps to protect their students and staff.

According to a notice posted on the University of Regina's website, the school is considering alternative delivery methods for courses, looking at adjusting course requirements for students and exploring different methods for students to write final exams.

Plans  are also being made for if students who live in U of R residences need to self-isolate.

"We will continue to monitor the situation, put our plans into action when and if required, and provide updates as the situation changes and future decisions are made," said Thomas Chase, the U of R's provost and academic vice-president.

On Thursday, the U of R confirmed two students were self-isolating after exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

In a post on the University of Saskatchewan's website, president Peter Stoicheff said the school is closely watching the situation, but will continue to operate as normal for now.

It too is considering options for having students attend classes remotely.

Both schools have also put restrictions on travel in place.

"I understand this is a time of uncertainty and concern, but please be reassured by our planning process in this situation, and know that the health and safety of our campus community is our top priority," Stoicheff said in the note.

Largest student band festival postponed

Saskatchewan's largest student-centred band festival has also been postponed as a result of COVID-19, combined with issues arising from the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation sanctions. 

"We felt that it was just too big a challenge and to be quite frank, we felt that we'd probably get shut down anyway," sais Lyle Merriam, who helps organize the Regina Downtowners Optimist Band Festival, which was slated to run March 24-27. 

"It will probably be too many people in one location to be able to do it, so we decided to pull the head ahead of time." 

Whether or not the festival is rescheduled for later this year will be determined in the next month or so.

The worst-case scenario is that he festival will be cancelled for 2020, but will return next year during the same time frame, Merriam said.

Everyone involved in the festival, from volunteers to band directors, is crushed, he said.

"It's disappointing for everybody."


Covering everything and anything for CBC Saskatoon, Morgan is a journalist interested in municipal and provincial affairs, Canadian crime and Canadian politics. Familiar with a variety of beats, Morgan has worked as a staff reporter for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Metro Calgary, Metro Saskatoon and the Fort McMurray Today and now works for CBC in Saskatoon.