Premier Scott Moe says school teachers and staff will be given “priority access” for COVID-19 testing as the province prepares to start the 2020-21 school year.
Moe vowed the province would increase testing capacity to 4,000 tests per day by early September. Teachers are urged to get tested before returning to school, and during the school year.
Students will take random tests based on how large their school is and whether or not their community has seen an increase in new cases. All student tests will be voluntary and require parental consent. Moe also said the province would reduce class sizes in exceptional circumstances.
Moe also formally announced $40-million in additional funding for Saskatchewan’s education system. That money will come from the province’s $200-million COVID-19 contingency fund.
“The plan as it came out was built to be adaptable,” he said. “It was built to address a very fluid situation. What we have done is build on the funding of that plan.”
Half of that $40-million will go towards “pandemic-related costs” like increased staffing or sanitation. Another $10-million will go towards masks, personal protective equipment, and other supplies. The remaining $10-million will go towards non-classroom options like distance learning.
Further changes, like busing options and class scheduling, will be left to local school divisions. They have until Aug. 26 to tell parents about those plans. That includes the option to move into a “Level Two” option, where school divisions could enact mandatory mask policies.
Moe said the goal was to make sure parents, students and teachers were “100 per cent ready for kids to return to school.” However, he also said the most important thing residents could do to protect schools from COVID-19 was to limit its spread outside of the education system.
Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, echoed those sentiments, telling reporters that schools were not “incubators” for the virus, and that precautions taken outside the school system were a significant part of keeping students, teachers and staff safe.
“I can’t emphasize that enough: schools are a part of the community,” he told reporters. “COVID does not travel from schools to the community. COVID travels from the community to schools.”
“The most important thing we have to do is keep community transmission low, and that is the basis on which school reopening is based on, but that advice keeps changing on new information.”
Shahab said it’s vital schools and health officials remain flexible in their planning, and pointed back to early June as an example. At that, health officials thought the transmission rate was so low some schools may be able to reopen, but pockets of intense transmission scuttled those plans.
Health officials are looking at back to school policies in areas outside Saskatchewan, and may tweak their plans based on what works in other provinces and countries. The current plan is based on reports that came out in June and July, as well as policies from countries that have already opened their schools, like Australia.
Shahab emphasized that no plan was completely risk free, but like Moe, he was confident the province’s schools could safely reopen with some precautions in place.
“We obviously do our own research in the province, but we work with Saskatchewan experts as well as experts throughout Canada,” he explained. “When we look at expert consensus statements, there’s nothing that has zero risk.”
Shahab added that schools have no random mixing, unlike restaurants, businesses and recreation facilities, which will help slow the virus’ spread. He said if schools and parents maintain stringent protocols to limit student mixing even further, like limiting class sizes or work groups, there should be few problems.
The province’s back to school plan includes a number of changes compared to the original plan announced on Aug. 4. In a press conference on Saturday, NDP leader Ryan Meili said those changes were “too little, too late.” He also criticized the government for taking so long to come up with a plan in the first place.
“The Sask. Party is spinning its wheels,” he said. “For months we’ve pushed for a serious plan for the safe reopening of schools. They have no plan and no clue what to do. Now, Saskatchewan families are paying the price with widespread fear and frustration as our kids return to school.”
–with files from Michael Oleksyn/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter