Saskatoon

No mandatory masks or reduced class sizes planned when Sask. students return to schools in Sept.

The Ministry of Education says it is buying masks in case the COVID-19 situation gets to ‘Level 2.’

Ministry of Education is buying masks in case COVID-19 situation gets to ‘Level 2'

Education Minister Gord Wyant will announce details of the hotly-anticipated plan at a 2:30 p.m. CST news conference. (CBC)

Saskatchewan will send its K-12 students back to school next month without requiring them or their teachers to wear masks and without a plan to reduce class sizes, although the Ministry of Education says it's planning to buy masks in case the COVID-19 situation worsens. 

In a hotly-anticipated update Tuesday, the ministry highlighted eight priorities it says are captured in the reopening plans for all of the province's school boards.

The province's back-to-school task force has been reviewing proposed plans from boards in recent weeks.

Regina Catholic Schools, Saskatoon Public Schools and Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools are among the school boards that publicly released their submitted plans immediately after the ministry's announcement. 

Some recommended masks.

"At this point, all GSCS employees and adults in GSCS facilities will be strongly encouraged to wear a face covering. Shields and masks will be provided for staff," Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools said. 

"Students are encouraged to wear their own masks at school when physical distancing is not achievable," Saskatoon Public Schools said. 

Regina Catholic Schools did not go that far. 

"Masks and temperature checks are not required according to the SHA guidelines but if there is unavoidable mass movement and contact that does not allow physical distancing, masks may be utilized," it said.

Regina Public Schools posted its plan too, writing, "Schools will teach, encourage and practise preventative measures such as limiting physical distance and contact throughout the school day and wearing masks."

Schools will also encourage students to bring their own masks, the plan says.

4 different levels outlined 

All of the province's school board plans account for four potential "levels" of precautions, the province said in a release. It did not detail what would prompt a school board to go from one level to another. 

"There's no real threshold," Wyant said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. "It will really depend on a school-by-school basis."

Students going back as early as Sept. 1 will do so under "Level 1," meaning "as close to normal as possible, with additional health measures and precautions."

Level 1 does not call for masks, reduced class sizes, or on-site testing and screening.

"We think that that's the best practice, at least in the beginning," Wyant said, while adding that plans could change before September. 

"Many experts have said that you need to provide as normal and reassuring an environment as possible when school starts, especially for younger children," Shahab said.

If a specific community experiences a concerning level of local transmission, masks "may be more relevant for more senior grades," Shahab added. "That certainly could include high school and include senior grades, in elementary school [Grades] 6, 7 8."

Earlier on Tuesday, the Alberta government announced that students and staff for Grades 4-12 will have to wear masks when physical distancing is not possible.

Level 2 would involve mask usage if the province's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, thought it was necessary, according to the release.

"Masks are being purchased centrally by the ministry of education and distributed to school divisions," according to the release.

Level 3 would see a reduction in "school capacity."

Level 4 would involve "transitioning to mandatory remote learning."

The province also announced that, as of Tuesday, daycares can take in up to 25 children, up from a previously limit of 15.

Wyant said there would be weekly briefings for education and health officials to help co-ordinate efforts such as any needed testing.

NDP, union react

Carla Beck, the Saskatchewan NDP​​​​​​'s education critic, let out a deep sigh before giving her first thoughts.

"Somehow the minister has managed to come up with the worst plan in Canada, despite all of the extra time and the ability to learn from the plans of other provinces," she said, pointing out that Saskatchewan was the last province to release its detailed plan.

Among her criticisms was the lack of triggers for when to move from one level to another. 

"I'm not sure how parents have any additional information to help them decide whether their children will be safe," she said. 

"I'm upset and angry."

Patrick Maze, the president of the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, said the province left him with more questions than answers.

"How many buses will be outfitted with Plexiglass dividers?" he cited as one example. "What happens when a child or several children need to stay home for weeks if they're sick? Who will deliver their education?"

Maze said the government deserved some credit for its move to purchases masks.

"However, they should be implementing them as mandatory, starting in pre-K," he said. "It would substantially reduce student anxiety."

Next steps

The ministry said divisions are being asked to share their plans with families, teachers and other school staff. 

"As the situation with COVID-19 in Saskatchewan is fluid, plans may be updated and adjusted as needed," according to the release.

Outside of the four scenarios, Tuesday's announcement largely echoed ideas included in the province's early back-to-school guidelines released in June, except that those elements are now confirmed to be part of school boards' plans instead of being mere suggestions.

Examples include:

  • Kids should stay home if they're sick.
  • Buses should be cleaned after every run and students should sit in assigned seats.
  • Schools needed dedicated quarantine areas for kids who test positive for COVID-19.
  • Recess and class start times should be staggered.

Tuesday's announcement also repeated the need for diligent sanitation and said "custodial staff will provide consistent sanitation of school facilities."

Suggestions made

The guidelines Saskatchewan released in June suggested possible steps including staggering recesses and class start times, but did not call for smaller groupings of students or reduced class sizes, as some provinces are planning for. 

The province emphasized the importance of reducing the chances of physical contact for younger children, offering suggestions such as games that promote "two arms lengths apart" and getting rid of toys that encourage shared play.

Schools were asked to keep lots of soap and hand sanitizer on hand.

"Where possible, students and staff should have their own hand sanitizer," the guidelines said.

Isolation area

The June guidelines also encouraged having staff stay with the same student groups throughout the day. 

Schools were told they should plan to have "an appropriate isolation area" for students who test positive for COVID-19. However, the guidelines — released well before the more recent uptick in COVID-19 cases — did not stipulate on-site screening or testing. 

"[Those are] not required or recommended at this time, based on current evidence," the guidelines stated. 

Saskatchewan students could be back in class as early as Sept. 1.

Guidelines criticized 

The Saskatchewan NDP has criticized the guidelines for lacking teeth and not including new money for classrooms the opposition party says were already underfunded and overcrowded before the pandemic. The party called on the government to lower classes sizes when schools reopen. 

"Funding needs to be clearly identified so that every school division is able to provide PPE and have the staff available to do the necessary added sanitation work," an NDP news release said last week. 

The province struck a task force to help craft its school plans. The team drew people from the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, League of Educational Administrators, Directors and Superintendents, and Saskatchewan Association of School Business Officials. 

After the guidelines were released, school divisions across the province put together plans to get teachers and students safely together in classrooms this fall. The boards have submitted their proposals to the Ministry of Education. The ministry gave them to the task force for review and feedback.

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

All-platform journalist for CBC Saskatoon

Story tips? guy.quenneville@cbc.ca

with files from Dan Zakreski and Karin Yeske

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