As Ontario announced plans to delay the post-holiday return to school Monday morning, some kids in Saskatchewan were already getting ready to head to class in the only province returning its students to in-person learning on schedule.
That had many raising concerns Monday, and suggesting the provincial government should consider re-charting its course as a fifth wave of COVID-19 bears down on the country.
“It’s taking a big risk. It’s taking a big chance here,” said Saskatchewan Teacher’s Federation president Patrick Maze.
“We do know that we were the only province that didn’t have restrictions on gathering sizes all throughout the holidays and that’s a huge concern that schools operated within their communities and so if the communities don’t have any kind of restrictions, then we’re at higher risk.”
Maze said his main concern is that, if left unchecked, Omicron will run rampant through teachers and staff, leaving so many sick and in isolation that keeping classrooms open will become a challenge.
“Staff need to be well in order to be in front of students. We look at airlines where they’re cancelling flights because they can’t staff. We have the same concerns in our schools. We have to be able to guarantee the safety of students in our care.”
Saskatchewan’s pandemic leaders were asked about delaying the return in a press conference last week.
“Schools in Saskatchewan are opening normally because, at this point, we are not at the peak surge that other provinces are,” Saskatchewan Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said.
One epidemiologist, though, said Saskatchewan’s lagging fifth-wave timeline gives the province the perfect chance to minimize the impact of Omicron.
“Prudent measures. Well thought-out measures will help minimize the negative impact on all Saskatchewanians including teachers and students,” he said.
“That’s if measures are taken at an appropriate time, not after things happen, but before they happen so we can minimize, get ahead and stem the negative impact of an Omicron-driven fifth wave.”
He’d like to see students kept out of schools for at least a couple of weeks so that the longer-term impact of Omicron on hospitalizations can be assessed.
He added that “schools are an extension of a community” and that even if those within their walls don’t end up getting sick, ending up in hospital and dying, the same can’t be guaranteed for their larger social networks.
“There’s no real borders between schools and homes and the community at large. So this is why I think what is happening in the community will be reflected in schools and vice-versa.”
There were 34 listed outbreaks in school settings on the government of Saskatchewan website Monday. Meanwhile, according to government data, there have been 516 COVID-19 cases detected among those aged five to 19 since the holiday break began on Dec. 18.
The Saskatchewan NDP also voiced criticism Monday of the provincial government’s choice not to delay the return to in-person learning.
In a supplied statement, the opposition called on the government to delay the return to classrooms and “and create a comprehensive Omicron strategy so Saskatchewan families are no longer flying blind into potential disaster”.
“We’re all tired. We all want students to stay in school, but hoping without a plan is going to land us in the same position we were in with the fourth wave,” added critic Carla Beck in a media availability.
Opposition leader Ryan Meili added that he thinks the development of such a strategy will require a delay of “at least this week”.
“How are we working on HVAC, on proper masking and on the access to rapid tests within schools?” he asked.
Global News reached out to the province for further comment Monday. While an interview with the premier, health minister or education minister was requested, a statement was provided in lieu.
In response, a spokesperson said “the Government of Saskatchewan believes it is important to resume in-class learning as normally and safely as possible, as it is important for children’s health and development.
“The protocols that have been put in place along with the over $150 million that school divisions have been given to support students and staff as we manage throughout the pandemic has proven to be successful.
“Schools have been encouraged to let parents and staff know the benefits of rapid testing prior to returning to school. The province will be sending 250,000 rapid tests to schools. Additionally, staff in Saskatchewan’s schools currently have access to disposable, medical grade surgical masks. These significant measures will support the continuation of in-class learning as we continue to learn with COVID-19 in our daily lives.”
Muhajarine, though, said that providing rapid tests to schools is “not a policy”.
“We need real action here. If there’s no action we need the reason why actions are not taken and we need explanation why certain public health actions are not being taken like in every other province right now,” he said.
Meanwhile, Saskatchewan school divisions were busy reiterating the precautions they’re taking to keep students safe Monday.
“Regina Public Schools continue to take a multi-layered approach to COVID-19 safety, including mandatory masks in all schools and buildings, increased sanitation protocols, cohorting of students where possible, a focus on hand hygiene, and upgraded ventilation in all Division-owned schools,” reads a Regina Public Schools statement.