Barring any major COVID-19 outbreaks, students will be returning to classes this fall.
The announcement that K-12 schools will open as of September 1 was made by Education Minister Gord Wyant Tuesday.
The reopening will be subject to restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those restrictions have not been announced yet, but they are expected as early as next week.
“Our priority continues to be the health and safety of our students, staff and caregivers,” Wyant said Tuesday.
“We will continue to take the advice and recommendations of our chief medical health officer. Maintaining physical distancing is less practical with young children. Our focus is on reducing risk and minimizing physical contact and putting in place protections not only for students but for caregivers and staff.”
Details will be worked out by the education response planning team, which was put together in the early stages of the pandemic and consists of ministry officials, school board representatives and Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation voices.
Wyant, and Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab, said the province has been monitoring other jurisdictions and will use those lessons when school returns in September.
“We know there will be many questions from school boards, teachers and parents and students as we prepare for a fall return to the classroom which is why we’re communicating this today and why we’ll be releasing these guidelines as early as next week to ensure there’s ample time to address those questions and prepare students for the return to school,” Wyant said.
He added that should there be a large outbreak, either regionally or provincially, contingency plans will be put into place.
Wyant said possible guidelines to ensure a safe return could include things like separate entrances, staggered classes and different scheduling.
‘There are all things we’re going to give due consideration to,” Wyant said.
“It all depends on what the state of affairs is when schools return in September. If the ongoing risk is significantly minimized, then things will be a little bit different than if the risk factors are higher.”
The key focus, he reiterated, will be ensuring a safe and equitable learning environment for all.
While many parents are looking forward to the return to the classroom, some might not feel comfortable. Wyant said they will be accommodated.
“We’ve heard from many teachers and many parents across the province that want to see their kids return to school. In-class learning is the best way for children to gain their education. We do believe in-class learning is the best option for children, augmented by other things,” he said.
‘We’ve heard from some parents who are perhaps concerned about their children going back to class, particularly children who may be immune-compromised. One of the things the response planning team is doing is working to ensure that we provide … a good level of education to those kids as well. We need to make sure we have an alternate delivery model for those children. We’re confident we’ll be able to meet that need.”
STF president Patrick Maze echoed some of what Wyant said.
“From my understanding, a lot of parents are going to be quite excited to hand their children back to teaches for the delivery of education. Yet, if there are still some students and parents that have concerns, we’ll have to cross that when we get there,” he said.
“Hopefully by September, some of the concerns will have died down a bit and parents are more likely to send their kids to school. There will be a concern from us if teachers are expected to keep a foot in both worlds.”
The return is good for students as well, he said.
“There’ a socialization factor (for students) too. I think they will be excited to get back.”
The return of classes should also provide better motivation for students.
“That’s a motivator.. the concern that you might not pass a class and have to take it over. I think that’s another positive, getting back into schools in September, where marks matter and attendance matters and everything is for real again — and students are motivated to be successful at school.”
If parents are concerned, Shahab tried to allay some of that worry Tuesday.
“We have been following very closely school reopening in Australia and the southern hemisphere. Australia has a low COVID-19 count, similar to Saskatchewan. We have been reassured by the fact that they have not seen large-scale transmissions in the school setting.”
As more continues to be learned about the virus, Shahab said it’s becoming clear that children are less vulnerable.
“Children don’t get that sick with COVID for the most part and don’t transmit that well either,” he said.
“COVID-19 behaves very differently in children than coughs and colds and influenza. We would really hope to go back to school as much as possible as normal with some additional precautions around handwashing and staying home if you’re sick, and other measures.”
There is more learning to do before schools open. That learning will inform the guidelines.
Those guidelines will be key as students return in the fall.
“I’m left with the same questions now as I had before the announcement today,” NDP education critic Carla Beck said.
“I’m anxious to see what the guidelines say. One of the cautions I’ve heard from people in the sector is we need guidelines for schools that take into consideration both the developmental abilities of students as well as the realities of classrooms. It’s one thing to tell an adult that they need to remain six feet away from their friends and not hug them and make sure they don’t put their hands in their mouth and don’t touch things, it’s a very different thing to tell a child that. That’s number one. These cant’ be considerations that are made for adults and assume that children will follow.”
While the lack of guidelines might cause some consternation, Maze trusts that the province’s committee will come up with a good solution.
“It would be nice to have some of the details because that is what’s going to bring some assurance and reduce the anxiety of teachers,” he said.
“When we hear we’re going back, we want to be sure it’s being done in a proper fashion that’s respecting teacher safety and student safety. Overall, that team has done really good work and been respectful of student needs, teachers’ needs and everyone’s health. We’re hopeful everything is going to work out for the best and everyone’s needs are going to be attended to. Even the best-laid plans will have to be adjusted quickly if there are more outbreaks of the virus.”