‘Reasonable’ for schools to reopen with some mandatory masking, says Shahab

Province not implementing blanket policy because of diversity of school settings

(Herald file photo)

Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer says it’s “reasonable” for all schools to start with some mandatory masking to prevent against COVID-19 as they reopen in the fall, but ultimately that decision is up to the divisions.

Dr. Saqib Shahab and Education Minister Gord Wyant announced further guidance for Level 2 measures on Tuesday. The provincial government’s Safe Schools Plan includes four scenarios that divisions can follow based on its specific setting.

When the plan was released last week, the second level included mask usage as recommended by Shahab.

Now, Level 2 guidance includes masking for Grades 4 to 12 in high traffic areas such as in hallways or on buses. For Grades 9 to 12, students and staff would wear masks in the classroom where physical distancing isn’t possible or when outside of the classroom.

Shahab said there’s been increasing discussions between health officials, ministers and school boards, leading to more analysis of the plan based on the current transmission of COVID-19.

“We probably would be better off starting at a higher level, Level 2, for mask use initially and then we can recalibrate as things settle down,” he said.

When asked why the government wouldn’t just implement Level 2 across all schools, Wyant emphasized that they’re diverse. Rural schools that have a low population of students, Wyant used as an example, are able to maintain physical distancing and wouldn’t necessarily need masks.

Regardless, he said, divisions will make those choices in consultation with local public health.

“We have schools ranging from four students to over 1,600 students. We need to consider what works for all facilities,” he said.

“We’ve always indicated from the beginning, when the plan was first put together, that things would change and things would evolve, and I think the recommendations the chief medical health officer is making today is simply reflective of that evolution.”

Shahab said it’s important for everyone to have a couple of non-medical cloth masks on hand when going out into public spaces, but masking isn’t the only preventative tool.

“(Masking) doesn’t replace all of the other measures that are so important—not going to school if you are sick, washing your hands before and after eating and after using the washroom, trying to maintain as much physical distance as you can, remaining in your own cohort or bubble,” said Shahab.

“I think we’re well positioned to start off the school year safely.”

Shahab said the province recognizes that back-to-school is coming at a time of higher transmission than in the spring, but still, the transmission rate is “not too high.”

According to a news release, the province is also developing more guidance under Level 3 for schools with a higher population. In the initial plan, Level 3 includes reduced school capacity as necessary.

Shahab directed all school divisions to implement the following measures:

  • Teacher and class cohorting, with a focus on cohorting teachers to a limited number of students and keeping students in one cohort as much as possible.
  • In elementary school settings, students’ cohorts will be the classroom.
  • In high school settings where cohorting is more complex, school divisions will be encouraged to find creative solutions to move students in cohorts where possible –– Wyant said “creative solutions” could include block scheduling or reducing students in class at any one time.
  • Front-facing instruction for students, any exceptions will be identified for approval by public health.
  • Staggered start times, breaks and end times, where possible.

The government has purchased six million disposable masks for students and staff at the beginning of the school year and on a daily basis.

NDP education critic still ‘astounded’

In response to Tuesday’s update, NDP Education Critic Carla Beck said updates to the Safe Schools Plan still fall short.

“I continue to be astounded by this government’s complete lack of planning for a safe return to schools,” she said in a statement.

“It is incredibly frustrating that once again the government has chosen to direct school divisions to ‘find creative solutions’ rather (than) to provide clear guidance or funding on cohorting and physical distancing.”

Beck called for the Human Resources Committee to reconvene and hear from experts on the province’s back-to-school plan.

“We must get this right.”