Opposition accuses Saskatchewan government of off-loading mask decision

REGINA — The Opposition NDP is accusing the Saskatchewan Party government of dumping a decision about mask use in schools onto local boards instead of making the call itself.

Education critic Carla Beck says she's frustrated by what she calls an off-loading of responsibility.

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"Right now, what I see is all of the political fallout and all of the concerned questions being directed at school boards. And frankly, I don't think that that is fair," she said Wednesday.

Education Minister Gord Wyant has said the province's 27 school divisions are in the best position to make decisions for their staff and students, in consultation with public health, about precautions for when schools reopen in September.

The government has put in place guidelines that require divisions to address issues like sanitation, physical contact and the grouping of students during the pandemic.

Beck said the province's plan is missing details, like defining how many students should be kept together to reduce the possible spread of COVID-19.

Class sizes also remain a concern for many, she said, adding the government's direction on mask use is also confusing.

Ontario and Alberta have made masks mandatory for Grade 4 to 12 students when their schools reopen.

For Saskatchewan schools that opt for masks, the province's chief medical health officer said Tuesday that Grade 4 to 12 students should wear them in busy areas such as hallways and on buses. For Grade 9 to 12 students, masks could also be worn in classrooms when there isn't enough space to stay far apart.

"I'm very frustrated with the fact that we're having any of these discussions two weeks before teachers go back into class," Beck said.

She said the September start date should be flexible to ensure proper safety measures are in place.

Five new COVID-19 infections were announced Wednesday with all but one in Regina, home to 38 active cases — the most in the province.

Regina Public Schools and Saskatoon Public Schools are among some school divisions in Saskatchewan that will require masks.

Prairie South Schools announced masks would be mandatory for at least September, while staff and students get used to other safety measures. Masks would then be re-evaluated on a school-by-school basis.

"It is unlikely that we will need widespread mask use in all of our schools for the entire year," reads a letter from two administrators.

The province said it expects more divisions will also require masks, and it has ordered six million.

Wyant said in a statement that he expects two million masks will be ready for distribution no later than Aug. 25.

"Masks will be distributed to all school divisions and will be made available to students, teachers and staff at the beginning of the school year and on a daily basis," he said.

"It is expected that school divisions will make masks available for distribution in schools to students and teachers, regardless of masking policies."

A Saskatoon Public Schools spokeswoman said it's also still working out details on class sizes. Veronica Baker said the division will limit the mixing of students as much as possible, which means high school students will take fewer classes each day.

The Regina Catholic School Division says it won't directly reduce class sizes. Spokeswoman Twylla West said it will focus on reducing how many teachers enter a single classroom and adjust classes for high school students, who will be wearing masks.

"We know we will have smaller in-person cohorts because there are families choosing to use our learning online school or home based education," she said in an email.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Aug. 12, 2020

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