Education Minister’s letter a surprise to Sask. Rivers

Saskatchewan Rivers School Board director of education Robert Bratvold answers a question at the 2016 AGM.

Saskatchewan Rivers School Division education director Robert Bratvold said the province’s letter about unvaccinated students participating in extracurricular events caused some confusion for school officials, but some of those problems were ironed out in a recent meeting.

Education Minister Dustin Duncan released a letter to school board chairs on Nov. 17 stating that both curricular and extra-curricular school operations are not considered subject of proof of vaccination/negative test requirements including sports and arts. It also considered education an essential service.

“It was a surprising letter to receive,” Bratvold said on Tuesday. “It was unexpected. It caused quite a bit of confusion and some concern within not just our division but across the province too.”

Bratvold said it created some uncertainty for schools in Shellbrook and Canwood, who co-hosted the SHSAA 3A Girls Provincial Volleyball tournament on Nov. 19-20. However, tournament organizers were able to host a safe event within Public Health Order guidelines.

“The order didn’t directly impact or force any change in the plans,” Bratvold explained. “We had to take a careful look at them, but there were not any changes so that was fortunate.”

Duncan’s letter said that some students who are age-eligible and not vaccinated were being prohibited from school sanctioned events. He stated that all students should remain eligible unless they are not under isolation as a result of being a close contact or COVID-19 positive.
“It was, I thought, unfortunate that the letter conveyed some things that might cause confusion generally,” Bratvold said. “We are still seeking some clarity around that.”

The government did further discuss the letter with directors of education and board chairs at a COVID response meeting the day the letter came out. These meetings have been common place since the pandemic started, and Bratvold said it was a good opportunity to discuss the letter’s intent and implications with deputy minister Donna Johnson.

“They had a good conversation with directors and board chairs and laid out lots of the concerns and questions we had,” Bratvold said. “She was able to respond to several of them and also commit to seeking more clarity about some of the other questions that needed further investigation.”

The letter stated that Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab supported the approach and Shahab himself confirmed it later in the week.

Saskatchewan School Boards Association president Shawn Davidson said Duncan’s letter sowed confusion among the province’s 27 divisions, since none of them have any policy limiting what a student can do if they’re not vaccinated or don’t provide proof of a negative test.

“Confusion is a fair term as far as what it has created,” Davidson said.

The letter was carbon copied to all directors of education along with the board chairs so Bratvold was in a position to respond.

“I appreciate that practice where the letter goes to the elected officials like the chair and the boards but is also copied on to the COs and directors so that if there is implications for operations, which there were, we can address those as soon as we can,” Bratvold said.

-With files from Zak Vescera Saskatoon StarPhoenix