Local school divisions like some of the approaches in back-to-school plan

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

After the announcement of the province’s Safe School Plan on Tuesday both the Saskatchewan Rivers Public School and Prince Albert Catholic School Division see positives and negatives in the approach taken by the province.

The province released guidelines that the 27 school divisions have used to craft their own detailed plans on how to safely resume in-person classes. Both school divisions released plans on Tuesday with the Catholic Division releasing a comprehensive plan while Sask. Rivers released a smaller plan ahead of a more detailed plan in mid-August.

Catholic Division director of education Lorel Trumier likes the idea of having planning at the local level because that is where problem solving already begins.

“I think that having a localized response is a good idea. If there is an outbreak in another city it doesn’t mean that our children can’t go to school and I think that’s the benefit of taking somewhat of a localized approach to mitigating any kind of outbreaks, they will move quickly on contact tracing, they will move quickly on different elements in order for us to keep our students in schools,” Trumier said.

She explained that a local and provincial approach will put the reopen plan in a better place.

“So I think that having both a localized approach and a provincial approach will put us to a better place on this front,” she said.

Robert Bratvold director of education Saskatchewan Rivers School Division explained that the eight points of the plan provided some clarity and wasn’t a massive departure from the original guidelines.

“ I certainly understand some of the concern that has been voiced in social media and in the public generally around concerns around parts of the plan, I understand that. We have had some of those frank conversations with ministry staff and an opportunity to discuss that. It provides, whether it is appreciated or not, certainty and clarity,” Bratvold said.

He explained that it offered approaches to planning and situation management. He also favours the localized planning approach.

“My preference is to rely on the local context with advice from the local experts, the local Medical Officer of Health office and I am frankly okay with that,” he added.

He explained that there are models where there is top down direction or the localized method and the ”There is a bunch of things that are left up to local context and I know that is not the model that everybody likes but I appreciate that, I appreciate that we have some autonomy locally. Given that I certainly understand some of the objections,” Bratvold said.

The plan is to bring students back to classrooms under conditions as close to normal as possible. The initial plan does not yet include the mandatory use of masks.

The plan does not provide immediate funding for any of the expectations. Trumier believes the situation is evolving.

“I think that in the world of education there is always a need to do more and we are waiting to see if ministry and government officials will entertain additional funding. I think part of that is also articulating what the plan is and there is a direct need on any plan to make sure that it’s funded. So as they are developing the plan the costs become real and become very necessary in order to operate and for that reason we both are assessing those matters as we speak,” Trumier said.

“We believe that if we can support the health and safety of our students and our staff and our educational community then we are prepared to do what we need to do for support for our children and our staff,” she added.

“I do believe that the plans at the provincial level and at a school division level will evolve. I think that more information and more evidence of effective practices to minimize the risk of COVID will become more known as time progresses so I do believe that we have got to start somewhere,” Trumier said.

She said that getting the information at the beginning of August was a step in the right direction and that waiting longer for clarity would not have been helpful.

“We have to be prepared to have it change or evolve to a better place in order to keep our students and staff safe. It has got to be our number one priority, COVID is dictating how this works. We are lucky that we are in a province that has the technological means and the access to services that so many places around the world do not have. And we can control our part that is all we can control so we can do everything we can to minimize physical contact so that we prevent the virus than we will do our best to make it happen,” she said.

The Saskatchewan Rivers Division sees the lack of funding as a challenge. Bratvold acknowledged that funding has been an issue for a number of years.

“I mean it is even an exacerbation of that funding challenge. There will be increased costs that we will incur and that’s just the reality. And the ministry has not indicated increased funding, but they have also indicated a willingness to have some conversations around that by a contingency fund and things like that so we will see where things land. That is a challenging piece for us,” Bratvold said.

To ensure preparedness, there are four scenarios that may be activated regionally or provincially based on the advice of Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab have been broken up into four levels. When schools return in September they will be in Level 1 which is a return to school as normal as possible with additional health measures.

In Level 2 mask usage as determined by Shahab will come into play. Masks are being purchased centrally by the Ministry of Education and distributed to school divisions. Some six million masks have been ordered but haven’t arrived yet. The plan is to have them by the beginning of the school year.

Shahab has encouraged people to wear masks when physical distancing isn’t possible. He suggested masks could be useful for older students.

Planning for this is already part of the Catholic Division’s planning.

“We are currently looking at some elements. In our plan we actually have some places where masks or shields will be mandatory, I will give you an example when we are working with medically fragile children we will make it mandatory. We will also work with the families to support the understanding around the spread of COVID and work to again make sure that both our staff and our students are in an environmentally appropriate health-wise position to be in,” Trumier said.

In Level 3 school capacity would become reduced and may include establishing of hybrid learning models. Level 4 would mean a return to mandatory remote learning like we saw at the end of the most recent school year. All school division plans have incorporated eight safe components that include safe attendance, safe transportation, safe access, safe facilities, safe classrooms, safe supports, safe activities. Safe attendance will allow all members of the school community to attend class safely with self-screening measures including; parents and caregivers being asked to monitor their children for any signs or symptoms of illness. If any symptoms are present, the student is to remain home, for those who are unsure if they or a student present symptoms or may need to be tested for COVID-19, should refer to the Saskatchewan COVID-19 Self-Assessment Tool.

All school division plans have incorporated eight safe components that include safe attendance, safe transportation, safe access, safe facilities, safe classrooms, safe supports, safe activities.

Bratvold explained that the division’s small temporary plan was part of their concept in dealing with the pandemic. He explained that the division has many different school contexts including high schools, elementary schools, Kindergarten to Grade 12 Schools and various other formats of schools in both urban and rural settings.

“Because of that variety our approach is about a set of directives and parameters division-wide consistencies that are non-negotiable directions and schools have the ability and I think the access to the expertise to develop those local plans that align with all the health directives that provides for the students and staff,” Bratvold said,

“We are going to have a more complete plan but it will still reflect being responsive to emerging needs rather than prescriptive,” he explained.

The Catholic Division has various levels of plans available at their website as well.

“We have a document that, yes we have the very large comprehensive plan, but we have created a quick reference just so parents can get a sense of what they can expect when we return to school, at least as of August 4, and I think that will help families come to understand of the plan.,” Trumier said.

Bratvold understands people are wary of returning to in class learning but is excited to return in September.

“I know it is hard and I don’t want to seem callous to people that have those significant concerns but I hope they can find some excitement in the launch of the new school year in spite of the challenging circumstances,” Bratvold said.