Saskatchewan leaves making masks mandatory up to school divisions

REGINA — The Saskatchewan government is leaving it up to school divisions to decide whether to make masks mandatory when classes reopen in September.

Some teachers, doctors and parents have voiced concerns over the government's back-to-school plan, which doesn't make masks mandatory for students like several other provinces. People have also called for reduced class sizes and better building ventilation.

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Education Minister Gord Wyant said while 10 school divisions have stated they want a mask policy, others have not.

"Schools are very diverse," he told a press conference Tuesday.

For example, he said, some rural schools don't have a lot of staff and students, so physical distancing isn't a problem.

Wyant said the government respects decisions made by the province's 27 local school boards, which have each been tasked with developing their own safety protocols to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Those have been approved by the Ministry of Education.

The Opposition NDP said the Saskatchewan Party government put together the worst back-to-school plan in the country.

The government said it has spent about $2 million on buying disposable masks for schools that want them.

It also announced Tuesday further guidelines for school boards to consider when it comes to putting together blueprints for classroom learning. Models should address how students can be grouped together and how many can be with a teacher.

Divisions are to consult with public health officials, as well as their schools, added Wyant.

For schools that opt for masks, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said 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.

Shahab said mask-free time will also be important, like during recess.

He said schools will likely reopen when there is slightly higher transmission rate of COVID-19 in the province, compared to a few months ago. On Tuesday, health officials announced 29 new infections.

Shahab said that in the fall, there will likely be more expectation for people to wear masks in public, and it should be no different in schools.

"We don't expect COVID transmission to increase generally, as long as we all keep doing what we're doing."

He said it's a good idea for parents to teach their children how to wear masks.

However, Shahab said masks are only one tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and schools should employ other efforts too, like reducing crowding.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on August 11, 2020

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