Public and Catholic school divisions make masks mandatory for Pre-K to Grade 12 students

Class in session/Daily Herald File Photo

Masks will be mandatory indoors at schools in Prince Albert for all students from Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 12 across both the Prince Albert Catholic School Division and Saskatchewan Rivers School Division.

The two divisions put out a joint release announcing their plans for starting the 2021-2022 school year on Tuesday evening. Masks will also be mandatory on all school buses. Staff and visitors will also have to wear masks along with students.

The divisions said they took the advice of medical experts before making their decision.

“I’m confident that it finds the balance between providing that protection that we want for our students and staff and also allowing us to return to some school operations that will be familiar to folks,” Saskatchewan Rivers director of education Robert Bratvold said.

Catholic School Division director of education Lorel Trumier said case rates, vaccination rates and other pieces at the local level also factored into the decision.

“What someone experiences in another area of the province is not the same,” she explained. “What we are doing here is trying to have students start school and remain in school. We don’t like to be moving to remote learning. We prefer to have our children in our schools, and so in order for this to occur, we have got to have a plan.”

All of the divisions, including the French schools, worked with local public health since last March to come up with a plan. Trumier said they have a good working relationship with health officials, which allowed them to get the information needed to make the decision.

“That’s really important as we are trying to contemplate a changing landscape of COVID,” Trumier said.

She added that the divisions are trying to be responsive and work with the best information possible before making decisions.

Bratvold saluted the Prince Albert Public Health team and Dr. Khami Chokani for their work throughout the pandemic. He said having all three school divisions connected with health officials on a regular basis provided them with invaluable information as they planned for the start of the school year.

Tuesday’s press release said that the added layer of protection provided by masks indoors will allow extracurricular clubs, sports, and activities to resume with appropriate protocols. It will also allow parents to return to some in-person connections in schools.

Masks will not be required for outdoor activities.

The details in each school division’s plan will be reviewed throughout the year. Revisions will take into account the experiences of students, families, staff, and rely on local Health advice and data. That includes data about transmission risk, COVID-19 case rates, vaccine rates, and local epidemiological evidence.

“We are going to start the year (with masks) because that’s the recommendation,” Bratvold said. “We want to honour that, but we also want folks to know that we are going to monitor this on a regular basis.”

Trumier said that enhanced cleaning protocols will continue along with other protocols from the previous school year. Children who get sick won’t be able to come to school until they are symptom free, something she said many parents were expecting.

“It will help us resume extracurricular activities and other indoor activities,” she explained.

Trumier said a majority of students are not eligible to get vaccinated, and that also factored into the division’s final decision.

“We certainly encourage families to consider vaccination,” she said. “We do understand that some can’t or won’t, but the simplest way to protect them is to of course then wear a mask. That’s really important as we move forward. We are hoping that as time progresses there will be advancements in vaccines and the rates and lower case rates of COVID and its variants.”

A few rules and regulations from last school year will return. Students and staff will have to practice social distancing when possible, and create cohorts to create bubbles that can reduce the risk the virus will spread.

Bratvold said discussions that were already planned with administration continued on Tuesday. They wanted to conclude those talks before they announced their plan.

“Things have been moving swiftly over the last, I would say, 10 days with lots of different statements by different organizations in the media,” Bratvold said.

Both directors said staff are excited to welcome back students for great learning experiences as schools resume in-person learning every day. They said schools are prepared for learning contingencies, should a hybrid or remote learning approach be required. Families are encouraged to prepare for that possibility as well.

Health officials will still conduct case investigations and communicate with parents and schools. Schools will be sharing details with families about back-to-school routines and other details in their school-based learning plan. More information will be available in the coming days.

The divisions reminded students and families to continue to be diligent in performing daily health screening, staying home if ill, calling the HealthLine at 811 if exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, practicing proper hand hygiene, maintaining physical distancing as much as possible, wearing a mask when appropriate, and doing everything we can to keep each other safe.

“We know that people will experience start-up in different ways and we want to support them,” Bratvold said. “Staff and students and families have different thoughts and ideas about start-up and we want to make sure that we can find ways to support them in that great return to school experience that we’re excited for.”