Province’s plan for back to school seeks return to ‘normal’

Deputy Premier and Education Minister Gordon Wyant. (Herald file photo)

The province announced its anticipated plan for the return of in-class education with its new plan announced Tuesday. The emphasis by Minister of Education and Deputy Premier Gord Wyant was normalcy when schools return on September 1 across 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. 

“We have evaluated best practices and emerging research, we have reviewed local plans to ensure they adhere to our provincial guidelines and started preparations for September 1 including procurement where necessary for hygiene, sanitation and PPE supplies,” Wyant said during a press conference on Tuesday. 

“Our plan will provide safe spaces for our staff and students for the new school year,” he added. 

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

“Medical professionals and other professionals have indicated to us … that kids get back to school in as normal a situation as possible, not just for socialization and for education, but for their mental health,” Wyant said. 

Wyant was adamant that the plan was based on advice from Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab. If Shahab offers the advice class size may change and other things may come into place, Wyant said.

“That’s really based on community transmission and that’s really based on the chief medical health officer.” 

The province released guidelines that its 27 school divisions have used to craft their own detailed plans on how to safely resume in-person classes in September. 

“After almost half a year we are excited to welcome students and staff back into our safe learning spaces. School divisions will be communicating with students, parents and caregivers and staff regarding their plans in the future. I would like to offer my sincere thanks to many who have provided input, our Chief Medical Health Officer and the Response Planning Team, parents and students, our administrators, our staff and our trustees with our divisions, the STF and ministry officials,” Wyant said. 

Saskatchewan School Boards Association president Shawn Davidson outlined the work that has occurred between divisions and the Ministry of Health along with the Education Response Planning Team. He explained that each local plan has been reviewed and stakeholders should expect further communication . 

“These will be specific to their school community and given that each of our facilities is different and each community has its own context it is important that each have worked within provincial guidelines and applied those to their local reality,” Davidson said. 

To ensure preparedness, there are four scenarios that may be activated regionally or provincially based on the advice of 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. 

”Moving from one level to another would only be done on the advice of our Chief Medical Health Officer,” Wyant said. 

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. 

“We need to balance the benefits of mask use, especially in younger children, with some of the potential challenges that can present to provide a normal school environment,” Shahab said. 

“We have chosen not to mandate masks in the opening stage because that is the best practice for Saskatchewan at least in the beginning,” Wyant explained. 

Wyant said that there are differences with regards to plans for every jurisdiction across the country. 

“Saskatchewan has chosen in phase one to open up schools in the most normal way possible and masks will not be mandatory in our schools,” he added. 

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.  

“Our plan will provide safe spaces for our staff and students for the new school year,” Wyant said. 

As well there will be a dedicated quarantine area in every school where individuals exhibiting symptoms will properly isolate from the rest of the school until a parent or caregiver can safely pick them up. 

Safe transportation protocols include assigned seating for students and a record of this seating plan on school buses and students who live in the same household will be seated together. As well where possible parents are encouraged to transport their own children and cleaning and sanitation of buses or other vehicles used to transport students is required between each run. Safe access measures to schools  include dedicated entrance and exit doors, staggered recess, lunch, and other class transition times to allow for additional space. There will also be controlled flow of students and staff in common areas including the use of directional signage and floor markings.

Safe facilities measures include increased sanitation measures in school facilities and promotion of  hygiene practices including increased availability of hand sanitizer and custodial staff will provide consistent sanitation of school facilities. There will also be maintenance of hygiene on all frequently touched surfaces and objects. 

Safe classroom measures to reduce the risk of transmission in the classroom include limiting physical contact such as hugs and handholding, as well as encouraging the use of alternative greetings such as “air high fives’, utilizing outdoor spaces for learning when possible and clear protocols for bringing supplementary school materials such as backpacks and school supplies in and out of schools as well as classroom configuration to minimize contact. 

For safe supports for all students local health officials will provide support to divisions to implement measures including personal interactions with intensive needs/immune-compromised students’ conditions will be in place to allow for the provision of supports within a safe and secure environment, which may include in-school setting or other appropriate spaces for the delivery of education and medically fragile students will have supports in place to address their educational needs. 

It is expected that school divisions will work with local medical health officers to address the needs of immunocompromised students including alternative learning opportunities. Divisions are expected to communicate regarding supports directly to communities. As well, The Ministry of Education will continue to support mental wellness through initiatives such as our work with Kids Help Phone to promote professional counselling services.

To facilitate  communication between school divisions and local health officers through the school year, weekly briefs will occur between the education sector and health officials to bolster monitoring and access to local needs and context. 

“This will allow both sectors to focus efforts and action including things like testing and additional supports,” Wyant said. 

To continue with safe activities during the school year there will be established protocols for the reduced use of shared materials and classroom supplies, identifying alternatives to in-person assemblies, such as virtual assemblies. 

Participation in extra-curricular activities will be dependent on the most current guidelines as provided by Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer.  

Extracurricular activities such as indoor sports are allowed in the second part of Phase 4 of the province’s reopening plan.

The school year is set to start as early as September 1, based on local school division calendars.