It’s a question that’s on the mind of many parents in Saskatchewan: should children be learning in-class or online as COVID-19 rates rise in the province?
There’s no easy answer.
Stacey Hobbs says kids have already lost too much since the start of the pandemic and need to be in school.
“They’ve lost activities, they’ve lost sports, they’ve lost social connections with their friends,” said Hobbs, who has three children attending school in Rosthern.
“They can’t go out, they can’t hang out. So right now, school is pretty much the only place that they get to have any type of social interaction.”
Meghan Durocher would rather schools move to online learning for the foreseeable future.
The Regina mother believes children are not hygienic, which she said makes them potential carriers of the novel coronavirus.
“They touch their faces, they touch their eyes, they don’t know better,” said Durocher, whose asthmatic son is learning online.
“They get hot, they take off (their) masks, they want to hug, they want to play, they’re jumping around everywhere.”
The seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases has been rising steadily in Saskatchewan since the beginning of November 2020, from 70 on Nov. 1 to 292 on Dec. 12.
The rising case numbers led school divisions in two of the province’s three largest cities to move to online learning. Regina moved to online learning for the week before and after the Christmas break, while in Prince Albert, both school divisions moved online for the first two weeks after the Christmas break.
The seven-day average fell to 153 by Dec. 30, but has increased since then, reaching a high of 321 on Jan. 12. As of Tuesday, the average was 300.
That increase is concerning for Carla Beck, who said there was hope transmission rates would lower over the Christmas holidays.
“That hasn’t happened. The positivity rate amongst children and youth in this province continues to climb,” said Beck, the education critic for the Saskatchewan NDP.
“About 18 per cent of those children and youth that are being tested are testing positive. So certainly, there is reason for concern about the rates of community transmission.”
Patrick Maze says while nothing replaces face-to-face learning, the COVID-19 numbers in the province means something must be done.
“I’m quite frankly a little surprised that more schools aren’t seriously considering a move to online learning,” said the head of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation.
“We’ve got to do something to get these numbers heading in a different direction.”
When the Saskatchewan government unveiled its back-to-school plan, it handed the decision on moving from in-class learning to online learning — or a hybrid of the two — to the school divisions.
The province said that will not change.
“As the risk of transmission varies around the province, the decision to transition to a different level of the Saskatchewan Safe Schools Plan is determined by the local school division in consultation with local public health officials,” said a spokesperson with the Ministry of Education.
“Changes to the Saskatchewan Safe Schools Plan are made in consultation with Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer.”
As a parent, Beck said she understands the concerns moving from in-class to online learning and the impact it has on children and parents who have to balance work commitments.
However, she doesn’t believe the school divisions should be making those decisions.
“I don’t envy for a second the decisions that school boards are being asked to make here, nor do I take lightly these concerns,” Beck said.
“However, what I will say is with the alarming rates of transmission in the community right now, that is making that decision for school boards even more difficult. It’s putting children and staff in schools at a higher risk.”
Maze said it appears the province may be headed toward online learning due to the high numbers.
“It seems like the numbers are rising incredibly fast, which is a huge concern,” he said.
“Everybody did what they could over the Christmas break, but at the same point, it doesn’t seem to have worked. And so we’ve got to try something different.”
The province recommended in November that high schools with more than 600 students should consider moving to Level 3 of the plan — online learning only or a mix of in-class and online learning — due to rising case numbers.
One way the government could provide clarity, Beck said, is to set thresholds for moving between in-class and online learning.
“What to do if you have a single case, what to do if you have two cases, what to do if there are five cases, we don’t have that type of clarity here in Saskatchewan,” she said.
“So what’s happening with one division with the child across the street might be a different way of dealing with outbreaks. That’s both concerning but also confusing for not only the people in the schools, but certainly for parents and students as well.”
The Ministry of Education said the Saskatchewan Health Authority conducts all COVID-19 investigations and public health works with schools to identify students and staff who may be close contacts.
“The schools assist as collaborative partners in the process in timely notification of the close and non-close contacts. Phone calls, letters and technology are utilized to ensure students, staff and families get the information they need,” said a ministry spokesperson.
“This collaborative approach is very quick, efficient for everyone involved and we thank all school divisions and schools for partnering with us in this way. Timely notification is key to successful contact tracing.”
Hobbs has experienced online learning first-hand. One of her daughters’ had to self-isolate for 14 days after a COVID-19 case in her class and although Hobbs said the teachers have done a good job with online learning, in-person learning is the best experience.
“I think as long as the schools can be as safe as possible, taught in a safe manner, take all the precautions that are possible, I would continue to send my kids to school as long as the schools remain open,” Hobbs said.
Technology is another barrier to online learning, said Erin Johnson.
“Not everyone has the technology to handle, two, three or four kids online at the same time,” said the private school teacher and mother of three students.
“And then also in a rural setting, which Melfort is sort of, many kids and my students even had a lot of trouble connecting with the Internet because they just don’t have super high-speed Internet out of town.”
Durocher would prefer online learning continues until high-risk groups are immunized.
“I think the elderly, the children, the teachers if they want to go back to school, all the important categories first,” Durocher said.
“Your health is more important right now for everybody, and if we have this lockdown or the school shut down, it would be a step to make the cases lower down for everybody.”