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Tumultuous school year comes to a close in Saskatchewan

Click to play video: 'Tumultuous school year comes to a close in Saskatchewan' Tumultuous school year comes to a close in Saskatchewan
By the end of this week, school will be out for summer at divisions across the province. While class may have ended on a note closest to normal since the pandemic began...the same can't be said for the rest of the school year. Connor O'Donovan has a look back at a learning calendar marked by frequent disruption. – Jun 29, 2022

With Saskatchewan’s vaccination campaign well underway, some involved in educating the province’s youngest minds allowed themselves a bit of hope as the 2021-22 school year began.

“There is plenty of room for optimism as we plan for a school year with as few interruptions as possible,” remarked a Prairie Valley School Division letter on Aug. 6, 2021.

“We are excited to have our students returning to in-classroom learning and advancing in their academic studies.”

Meanwhile, the Saskatchewan government’s 2021-2022 Return to School plan, released in early July 2021, stressed a number of precautionary measures for in and outside of the classroom but stated that “COVID-19 restrictions will no longer be in place and the 2021-22 school year will proceed as during
pre-pandemic years.”

Of course, COVID-19 had other plans.

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Read more: Students look back on COVID warped school year: ‘It was this feeling of finality’

Within weeks, the deadly Delta subvariant had gained dominance across the globe, and cases, hospitalizations and deaths began skyrocketing and before the school year began school divisions had hurriedly put out new back-to-class procedures involving mandatory masking, co-horting and limited access to extracurricular activities.

By the end of the September divisions like Regina Public Schools were reporting cases near-daily in classrooms across the city and some of those classrooms were forced online, further disrupting the planned “pre-pandemic” style return to learning.

The province soon made masking mandatory in public spaces, and proof-of-vaccination policies were introduced in schools and beyond.

Unvaccinated kids, meanwhile, were restricted from extracurricular activity access if they were deemed close contacts.

Hope returned in late November when Saskatchewan opened COVID-19 vaccination to 5- to 11-year-olds. However, the optimism was again restrained as the Omicron wave led to some of the highest daily caseloads the province had ever seen by the end of the year.

Conversations were had about whether or not to send kids back to school on schedule after the holiday break, but ultimately Saskatchewan bucked the national trend and chose not to delay the return, forcing parents to decide for themselves whether or not to keep their kids home.

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In the new year, provincial policies first put the burden of contact tracing in schools on tired teachers and staff, then, when PCR testing was limited to high-priority populations and COVID-19 reporting slowed down families so had less information with which to make decisions for their children.

Throughout, teacher and student absence rates above normal levels were reported.

Read more: What causes long COVID? Canadian researchers think they’ve found a key clue

That has some worried about the potential impacts on kids’ learning and development.

Child and youth psychiatrist Dr. Tamara Hinz said routine and structure “are really good antidotes for mild anxiety and stress.”

“When things are interrupted because you fall ill or your teacher is sick or things have moved online,” she said, “all of these things can put kids more at risk for mental health symptoms.”

Hinz said she’s already seen an increase in illnesses such as anorexia among youth during the pandemic.

“Some of the illnesses we’re seeing are going to have far-reaching implications. These can be devastating and life-threatening illnesses that don’t just wrap up in a couple of weeks,” Hinz said.

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“I think, unfortunately, there is a risk that there will be a widening of the disparity between children we already see.”

Hinz said that while summer tends to be a lower-stress period for children, parents shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to school counsellors or their family doctor if they have any concerns about their kids’ well-being.

“We saw an unprecedented degree of absences from students for various reasons, which means kids have missed a lot of instruction time. Depending on the individual child and perhaps the grade level, I think there are some serious concerns about what children were able to learn and absorb,” she said.

“I think that’s going to be a real struggle in the years to come as teachers and schools assess where each child is academically and to make sure they have the right kind of supports to meet those kids where they’re at.”

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