Province releases guidelines for students’ return to classroom

Deputy Premier Gord Wyant listens to questions from the Prince Albert Business community on December 18, 2018. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

The provincial government released more details Thursday about its plans to return students to the classroom in September.

Education Minister Gord Wyant and Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab walked reporters through the guidelines, which were released publicly, during a press conference Thursday afternoon.

Wyant said the guidelines could be tweaked before the fall, adding that they’re being provided now to give school divisions the maximum amount of time to prepare for a safe return to classrooms in the fall.

“I can assure you the ministry values the education of every child in this province,” Wyant said.

“Their safety and wellbeing, as well as the safety of educators, is paramount as they prepare to return this fall.”

The guidelines include standards for cleaning and sanitation as well as procedures such as staggering entrances and limiting group activities. Physical distancing will be encouraged as much as possible. Continuous mask-wearing is not part of the recommendations.

The use of physical barriers, such as plexiglass, is also allowed if physical distancing is not possible.

Teachers and parents are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the guidelines, which are posted online as part of the Re-Open Saskatchewan Plan.

“We will ask parents and caregivers (to) please monitor their children for any signs and symptoms of illness. If your child is feeling sick at all, they should stay home,” Wyant said.

“We’ve also requested that schools increase sanitation measures and continue to promote proper hygiene practices.”

Physical distancing is less practical for younger students, Wyant said, so the focus should be on minimizing physical contact instead. Similar guidelines were released for daycare operators earlier on in the pandemic,.

Areas where objects are commonly touched should be avoided, and recess games should include things like shadow tag. Kids should also be encouraged to avoid high fives and handshakes, and give air high fives instead, Wyant said.

The guidelines said a plan should be in place to discourage mingling in bathrooms. Shared toys, supplies and activities should be avoided.

“Kids have had to learn about physical distancing over the last number of weeks and we know this has been challenging for them and their parents,” Wyant said. He added the focus in the guidelines was on creating a school environment “that’s as normal and comfortable as possible.”

What that will look like will vary from school to school, he said, but some things, such as signage and the flow of students, will look similar in each location.

“We are putting these guidelines out well in advance this fall so students and teachers have ample time to prepare,” Wyant said.

“These guidelines will ensure  operators … of schools can plan to resume as previously scheduled this fall.”

Shahab said the guidelines have been created based on the best expert evidence available, as well as the experience of jurisdictions around the world that have reopened schools during the pandemic.

The guidelines, he said, “reinforce the fact that the risk is low for schoolchildren, and the way the guidelines are laid out will enable a more or less normal resumption of school with some extra attention to handwashing and not going to school if you’re sick.”

He said those guidelines are similar to what’s said every year during flu season.

Guidelines for extracurricular activities are still in development. Shahab said it’s his hope that those will be able to resume in the fall as well.

Shahab said public health units are used to working with schools during outbreaks of influenza as well as gastrointestinal diseases such as norovirus. Those relationships will be important going forward, he said.

He reassured parents that schools aren’t a place that’s a high risk for COVID-19 outbreaks.

“What we have seen from other jurisdictions, with COVID-19 we know children don’t get sick … and if they do get COIVD-19, their symptoms are mild,” he said.

“With daycares continuing to be open throughout (the pandemic), we haven’t had issues. That supports that we can open schools safely.”

One area of concern was transportation. Parents will be asked, wherever possible, to provide their own transportation for their children. Where bussing is needed, seats will be assigned with family members sitting together. Buses will also have to be disinfected between each use.

In case students or staff do get sick, the guidelines include instructions on best practices for isolating anyone showing symptoms. Wyant also reiterated his previous statement that the province will work with anyone apprehensive about sending their children to school in the fall, especially parents of immunocompromised children.

Shahab said COVID-19 diagnoses have been handled in other essential workplaces without outbreaks happening, and he expects that, should a staff member get sick in a school, it would be no different.

What didn’t come Thursday was any new information regarding increased financial supports for school divisions. There was no such funding allocated in the budget, aside from the $200 million contingency the province included to deal with any further COVID-19 response.

If more supports are needed, Wyant said those conversations will be had with school divisions. However, he said schools have been able to save “significant” dollars during the pandemic.

“We’re going to want to understand what those numbers are,” he said. “We will be having ongoing conversations … to see what additional resources might be needed, but we want to make sure that we have that conversation in the context of what those costs might be relative to the amount of money school divisions have saved over the past months.”

It’s unclear what costs Wyant is referring to.

Teachers remained employed during the school closure, and, locally, those costs make up the majority of the budget. As much as 80 per cent of the Saskatchewan Rivers School Division budget is made up of salary costs. For the Catholic school division, that number is closer to 85 per cent.

Other funds went towards regular maintenance to prepare schools for a fall return. The province did increase education funding in its 2020 budget, but only $42 million of that increase is operational, which funds a pay raise for teachers, inflation and enrolment growth.

The Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation has said it shouldn’t’ be up to teachers to spend additional time cleaning and disinfecting classrooms. They said that will take away from instructional time. They would rather see caretaker staff taking on those responsibilities.

School divisions have also expressed concerns about the lack of additional funding for COVID-19 response. The Prince Albert Catholic School division, though, did say it put some money aside for its COVID-19 response, including installing sneeze shields and buying PPE.

Wyant added that the conversation about class size and composition is ongoing through that committee.

Wyant thanked teachers and students for their patience through the pandemic.

He thanked teachers and parents for their “patience and exceptional guidance to our children during these extraordinary times.”

He thanked students for their resilience.

“We know it’s been hard to not see your friends, stay away from playgrounds and have your classroom at the kitchen table. We all know mom and ad aren’t as cool as your regular teacher,” he said.

“We’re so excited that this summer you’ll be able to play, splash at the spay parks and hang out at the ball diamond. Have a wonderful summer. We can’t wait to see you this fall.”