Saskatchewan Education Minister Dustin Duncan said the province is taking steps to ensure students continue to have access to in-class learning.
“We know that in-class learning is critically important to students’ overall mental and physical health and development,” Duncan said.
“That is why the government of Saskatchewan is supporting all students and staff in finding ways to reduce risk while we learn to live with COVID in our everyday lives.”
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Duncan said there will be disruptions to classrooms as COVID-19 cases increase and Omicron becomes the dominant variant.
He said the province continues to support schools and school divisions with a layered approach to ensure the safety of staff and students.
“(This) includes continued masking, access to rapid tests, increased sanitation, cohorting, and encouraging all students and staff who are sick to stay home,” Duncan said.
The Opposition NDP said it was expecting the government to outline a back-to-school plan at Wednesday’s briefing.
Education critic Carla Beck said instead the Saskatchewan Party government continued a pattern of “too little, too late.”
The education minister had no plan for staffing, promised no additional PPE, ventilation upgrades, funding or new measures that can be found in every other province,” she said in a statement.
“This approach will not keep kids and school staff safe.”
Duncan acknowledged during his briefing that some disruptions are possible as in-class learning continues.
”Like we’ve seen in the previous waves of COVID 19, we likely will see disruption in individual classrooms and perhaps in schools that will cause some move to remote learning,” Duncan said.
“But to say that 188,000 students across the province all need to start at home, this week, that just wasn’t something that we felt was necessary at this time.”
Beck said no one disagrees that students are best served when they are in the classroom.
But, she said a wait-and-see strategy will not ensure student safety.
“If you know a hurricane is coming, you don’t wait for the storm to hit to board up your windows,” she said.
“The longer you wait and sit on your hands, the fewer options you leave for school divisions and parents, eventually forcing classes online when you no longer have the staffing capacity in schools.”
Patrick Maze, head of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation, said the situation is only going to worsen.
He said while in-class learning is vital and important, a two-day pause in resuming classes would have helped to protect student’s health.
Maze is now calling on the government to provide N95 masks to all staff and students in schools and to mandate masks and proof of vaccination for all activities.
“Dr. Shahab indicated it is important we attempt to slow the surge,” he said.
“While it is unfortunate that we lost that opportunity to implement these measures before students returned, doing so now would still help ensure in-person learning continues.”
Maze also called for the province to update the definition of fully vaccinated to include booster shots and for all students turning five this year to be eligible for the vaccine.
He also said the Education Sector Response Planning Team should be immediately reinstated.
“We need to take action here in Saskatchewan now, before our situation becomes dire,” Maze said.
“Teachers, principals, vice-principals, other school staff and boards are doing an incredible job of weathering this ongoing storm, but our government seems to have learned nothing from the failures that made the recent wave of the Delta variant so challenging.”
The province said school staff continue to have access to medical-grade disposable surgical masks and more than 1.6 million rapid antigen tests have been distributed to families through elementary schools.
Rapid tests will now be available in high schools.
Duncan said any staff or student who tests positive must report it to their local school office and self-isolate based on their vaccination status.
He said schools are updating their process for contacting close contacts based on the new modification.
Close contacts who are fully vaccinated will follow the current self-monitoring practice and will be able to attend school and take part in activities if they remain asymptomatic.
Students who are close contacts to cases in non-household settings and not fully vaccinated can continue to attend school, take the bus and attend child care as long as they are asymptomatic.
They are not permitted to attend extra-curricular activities for the 10 day self-monitoring period.
If the transmission occurred in the household setting, all unvaccinated students are required to isolate for 10 days, including not attending school or child care.