Saskatchewan Opposition, teachers call for better back-to-school plan

REGINA — The Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, Opposition NDP and some parents are calling on the province to rethink its plan to have schools reopen in September under as close to normal conditions as possible.

Federation president Patrick Maze said a new plan with tighter restrictions, including mandatory masks as well as extra hand washing stations and custodial staff, would alleviate worries from teachers who are immunocompromised and concerned about the health of their families.

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"Time is ticking," he said Wednesday. "We've got about three weeks before teachers are back in schools and teachers really want to know answers."

NDP Leader Ryan Meili has panned Saskatchewan's back-to-school plan as the worst in Canada.

He said it is missing clear direction to families and educators on safety precautions and doesn't provide additional resources to school divisions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"School is coming. The deadline is quick. We want them to take this homework back and fix it," said Meili.

The Saskatchewan Party government said more details can be found in each plan developed by the province's 27 school divisions, which were reviewed and approved by the Ministry of Education. They were released by the province Wednesday and contain variations based on the government's advice.

Premier Scott Moe said in a tweet they all include measures like reducing physical contact, assigned seating for transportation, crowd control and staggered start times.

For example, Saskatoon Public Schools says masks are not mandatory, but students are encouraged to wear them when they can't stay far enough apart. Regina Public Schools says students should bring their own masks.

Meanwhile, Prairie Valley School Division in the province's southeast says it will provide masks in some situations, like when a staff member or student is symptomatic.

The government has said making masks mandatory and cutting school capacity could happen, depending on how the virus spreads and advice from public health officials.

Education Minister Gord Wyant said Tuesday some six million masks have been ordered for staff and students should things change.

A spokeswoman with the Ministry of Education said the government will address questions parents may have about the return to school, like protocols around quarantine and personal protective equipment.

"As the situation with COVID-19 in Saskatchewan is fluid, school division plans may be updated and adjusted as needed, " said Carly Rathwell.

Saskatoon mother Elya Lam has the two oldest of her four children going into kindergarten and Grade 2. The former teacher said she is uncomfortable sending them to school, calling the government's plan too reactive and not focused enough on guarding against the spread of the virus.

She's involved in efforts to pressure the government to make changes, which include putting a cap on class sizes, making masks mandatory for staff and older students, as well as upgrading school ventilation systems.

Lam said her nieces also attend school in Regina and her mother teaches in the southwest, and she worries leaving details up to local school divisions could mean some people will be better protected than others.

"I'm a mama. If one kid is in trouble or in danger, then it might as well be my own kid," she said.

"That is not OK with me and it should not be OK with the parents and the community members."

On Wednesday, the government announced 225 active cases of COVID-19, including eight new infections.

Dr. Anne Huang, a former deputy medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority and Health Canada, said the province's school guidelines address transmission of the virus on surfaces but doesn't speak to how it can be spread through the air.

She said aerosol transmission of COVID-19 is being discussed in scientific communities and a lot of new information about the virus has emerged in the past couple of months.

Huang said getting students and staff to wear masks indoors is the "bare minimum," and the province and school boards should find ways to increase classroom air flow through ventilation.

"The plan would be OK if we have zero cases or very few cases in the community. However, as soon as our risk level in the community goes up, this plan is a recipe for resurgence of COVID-19," she said.

"I'm worried."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on August 5, 2020

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