Saskatoon

'This is not a political issue': Sask. education minister stands by no mandatory masks

Saskatchewan's education minister says the government has ordered six million disposable masks to use in schools, which will be distributed when classes resume this fall, but their use won't yet be made mandatory in schools.

Gord Wyant says masks 'under active consideration'

Education Minister Gord Wyant said Friday that the province had ordered 6 million masks for use in schools this fall. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Saskatchewan's Ministry of Education says it has ordered six million disposable masks to use in the province's schools.

A news release from the ministry said the supply should service school divisions until the end of the year. 

The province said it's monitored federal government guidelines and taken feedback regarding safe return to class this fall.

Critics have been vocal since the province announced its back-to-school plan on Tuesday.

One campaign says the government should make masks mandatory if it is going to send children back into the schools. Rallies were planned around the province Friday.

Minister of Education Gord Wyant said at a news conference Friday that, as of now, mask use will not be mandatory in classrooms, but that it is under active consideration.

He said the decision to not introduce a mandatory mask policy was in the hands of Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer. Wyant said he was comfortable with the plan.

Wyant said Saskatchewan's community transmission of COVID-19 was different from other places. 

"Certainly Alberta, who went with a mandatory masking policy in schools, and Ontario have different challenges in their communities than we do in Saskatchewan." Wyant said on Friday.

"I think that has a lot to do with the reasoning behind Dr. Shahab's initial advice to us." 

Wyant said Shahab's consultations with medical professionals and with affected parties would continue and he noted several times in Friday's press conference that the current guidelines could change before the school year begins.

Protesters, officials raise concerns

Cecilia Prokop, a concerned parent, attended a rally Friday in front of the legislature building with roughly 100 other people.

She said she did not feel the government's plans for students to return to class was sufficient and that she was concerned for the safety of her children, students and staff at the facilities. She called for more money to fund schools to lower class sizes was needed.

"At a bare minimum, mandating masks for staff and older students is a place to start, but really, small class sizes is what we need to see," she said.

Students, teachers, parents and other people concerned about the government's back to school plan rallied in front of the legislature on Friday. (Matt Howard/CBC News)

Saskatchewan NDP education critic Carla Beck said she was angry about the plan when she heard it on Tuesday and remained so Friday. She said with enough collective action, she felt the government would make adequate changes to the plan.

Holly Hirschfield from Regina and two of her children were among those in the crowd. She said they attended because they wanted to see a return to school plan that was more clear and gave parents more confidence.

"I feel like it's so behind the science of what we're beginning to understand about coronavirus," Hirschfield said.

"People are creative and our children are resilient and I just want a plan that reflects that."

Her daughter Sophia said she felt comfortable wearing a mask when it comes time to return to school and that her biggest worry would be practising physical distancing in school hallways.

Sophia said she would feel more comfortable if half of her classmates participated in courses online, while the other half attended in-person.

People called for more clarity from the government about what would constitute a reversal of its back to school strategy and for mandatory masking guidelines. (Matt Howard/CBC News)

The Saskatchewan Medical Association, which represents physicians, medical students and residents in the province, called on the government to make masks mandatory in schools this fall.

"While masks on their own will not completely prevent the spread of the virus, we believe their use is a very good way to make schools safer," the association's release said.

When asked to respond to the medical association's statement, Wyant said the province respects the opinions of medical doctors who wish to weigh in on the issue and reiterated his point that plans could change before school resumes. 

"This is not a political issue for us. This is an issue of making sure that children go back to school as safely as possible," Wyant said. 

Sask. Medical Association responds

The Saskatchewan Medical Association issued a statement Friday calling for tighter restrictions at the start of the school year which could be rolled back gradually.

The association, which represents the province's physicians, believes the province's plan should be more directive when it comes to the use of masks.

"While masks on their own will not completely prevent the spread of the virus, we believe their use is a very good way to make schools safer places for children, youth, teachers and support staff," read the SMA's statement.

The association said it plans to have further discussions with province. It said the ability for students and staff to physically distance in schools "remains a real concern."

"When you look at the schools — the infrastructure and the structure of the school — there are concerns around what we're calling the Three Cs: the close contacts, the closed spaces and the crowded spaces," said SMA President Dr. Barbara Konstantynowicz.

Konstantynowicz said she's pleased there's been an open dialogue between the medical association and the government. She said she hopes the fears around the return to school ease in the coming weeks.

Mask, PPE recommendations in place locally

Mask and personal protective equipment (PPE) recommendations are in place in many of the provincial school division plans. 

Under Level 2 of the plan, mask and PPE usage can be mandated by the chief medical health officer. The province has not said what specifically would cause a shift to Level 2.

The six million masks are to be delivered and distributed to school divisions before the start of the school year. They will be available to students, teachers and staff on a daily basis.

The government said it also supported school divisions in obtaining face shields for staff through an Ontario-based company.

The news release suggested that the 27 provincial school divisions use $40 million in savings from the last school year for costs associated with obtaining any additional personal protective equipment they may feel necessary.

With files from Morgan Modjeski, Laura Sciarpelletti

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