Province announces mask procurement, continues to face backlash on school plan

Gord Wyant/ Herald File Photo

After releasing their Safe Schools Plan on Tuesday Education Minister and Deputy Premier Gord Wyant held a surprise press conference Friday. He announced that the Government of Saskatchewan has procured 6 million disposable masks for schools in Saskatchewan with an investment of $2.3 million.

This supply of masks for school divisions will last until the end of the calendar year.

“Our government has been carefully monitoring the release of federal guidelines by the Public Health Agency of Canada and feedback from provincial stakeholders including the Saskatchewan Medical Association in regards to the safe return to schools,” Wyant said.

Wyant said during the press conference that the issue was not political despite all of the recent blowback they have received from parents, teachers and others. He said it was about returning to class as safely as possible under consultation with Chief Medical Health Officer Saqib Shahab.

“He has been actively engaged with his colleagues across the country and we’re encouraged by those conversations, we will continue to have those conversations with him and his office in consultation with educational leaders in Saskatchewan to make sure that we fulfill our goal to make sure children go back to school as safely as possible,”

The Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF) has also been critical.

“The plans that have been provided have all been reviewed by the STF and the school boards association so I find it a bit disingenuous that the STF would complain about the plans that they have had a look at and they have had an opportunity to comment on,” Wyant said.

Wyant explained that the Request for Proposals for masks was sent out and closed at the end of July.

“Once that closed we had our preferred supplier which we had provided that information to various school divisions and that is when we placed the order for six million masks and we are expecting them to be delivered in the third week of August,” Wyant said.

In a press release the government said that under current guidance in Level 1 of Saskatchewan’s Safe Schools Plan, mask and PPE usage recommendations are in place in many Saskatchewan school division plans.

In consideration of these guidelines and feedback Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer and the Ministries of Education and Health are actively considering a mandatory masking policy under Level 2 of Saskatchewan’s Safe Schools Plan.

“It is currently at level one but again there are some conversations that are going on with healthcare professionals and education professionals to determine whether or not that will change. We have always said that the plan that has been put forward by the province and the local plans that have been put together by the school divisions, and I want to thank them for all of their very hard work, is very fluid,” Wyant said.

He explained that the Safe Schools Plan provides consideration to changes and updates as needed, as accounted for within the four levels.

Under Level 2 of the plan, mask usage can be implemented under the direction of the Chief Medical Health Officer in consultation with Public Health either regionally or provincially, based on the most up-to-date situation and scientific information available.

Wyant explained that the move to level two will be determined by consultation with Chief Medical Health Officer Saqib Shahab. He reiterated many times in the press conference that consultation between Shahab and other stakeholders is ongoing to determine the change.

“Certainly there was some guidelines that came forward from the Federal Government today which was recommending mask usage on the return to school . Those are all things that are being considered in consideration with our partners in education and our partners in the medical community to determine whether or not school should start at level two,” Wyant said.

He explained that the conversations are ongoing with the Education Response Planning Team and they are giving consideration to all new information.

The initial order of 6 million masks will be delivered and distributed to school divisions before the start of school year, which is set to start as early as September 1, depending on local school calendars. These masks will be made available to students, teachers and staff at the beginning of the school year and on a daily basis.

In addition to face masks, the province has supported school divisions in obtaining access to free face shields for staff through a Canadian company based in Ontario.

The full-face shields will be another option available to staff.

“These masks will be made available to students, to teachers and to staff at the beginning of the school year and on a daily basis. We know that parents, teachers and students want to return to school safely and our government is committed to continuing to work with school divisions and our partners in education to make sure schools are safe and that our kids can come back to school again,” Wyant said.

He also tried to make clear that school divisions have already been acquiring masks.

When it comes to things like practicing social distancing Wyant acknowledged large class sizes but said it was up to local plans.

“We know that a lot of school division plans call for separate pods to be in those classrooms so that we can minimize the amount of contact between students in those classrooms. Currently there is no restriction on the amount of class sizes. If we ended up going to level three there is requirements within that level to amend that to make sure that class sizes are smaller in the event we have to go there, we certainly hope we don’t. But at the present time the local plans certainly have accommodated for that,” Wyant said.

The province has reiterated since the plan was released Tuesday that the 27 provincial school divisions had a saving of approximately $40 million for last school year, which they have encouraged be used towards costs associated with additional procurement as school divisions feel necessary. This money must be used by the end of August by each school division.

Also on Friday opposition NDP leader Ryan Meili and Education Critic Carla Beck were joined by Lynne Saas, a former teacher and school administrator as well as Director of Education for Scenic Valley and Prairie Valley school divisions, to call for a real plan that supports immunocompromised students and school staff and fills the need for additional off-site spaces.

“This is the worst plan in Canada. We’re only weeks away from schools reopening and there’s no consistent plan or funding to keep the students at greatest risk safe,” Meili said in a release.

“It’s clear, that securing the off-site spaces that would help make this possible was not a government priority. School divisions are doing their best, but they have been let down by this Education Minister and this Premier.”

Meili noted that with no government funding or support families are left with a patchwork of different plans across the same park, between two towns just down the road and even in the same facility in the case of joint-use schools.

“This government’s plan fails to meet their legal responsibility to ensure all kids, especially those for whom a COVID-19 infection could be-life threatening, have a safe learning environment,” Saas, who also worked as a consultant for the Special Education Branch of Sask Education as well as a consultant for special needs students for several Saskatchewan school divisions, said.

“Parents shouldn’t be forced to make the difficult choice of either sending their at-risk child to a mask less school or forego the benefits of a school environment.”