Sask Rivers parents bring concerns about return to school plan to board

The Sask Rivers Education Centre/ Daily Herald File Photo

Parents from a few rural communities around Prince Albert say they’re concerned about the effects the Saskatchewan Rivers Public School Division universal masking policy will have on students.

The board gave the group 10 minutes to address the meeting, with spokesperson Cody Lockhart taking the lead and other parents adding their input throughout the exchange. The entire discussion lasted around an hour before the regular session began.

Lockhart said in an interview on Tuesday that the parents in attendance just wanted their children to have a choice not to wear masks.

“I want to make that point clear if it was lost in the speaking last night,” Lockhart explained. “Nobody is anti-mask and nobody is anti-vaccine. What we are is pro-choice, where the parent should be able to be the final arbiter of that choice for their children because they know best.”

Roughly 10 parents were given the floor at the school division’s regular board meeting on Monday to raise their concerns about the safe school plan released last week. The group said they’re concerned about mental health, class sizes, and the lack of consultation with parents before the plan was announced, among other things.

“If you would get some better science out there, or something regarding the need for masks, I would certainly love to revisit that. But at this time the lack of choice is really what is driving this parent involvement. We simply want a choice for our children.”

The group included parents with children attending Red Wing Public School, Shellbrook, Canwood School and Debden School.

During the meeting, Lockhart said he disliked the process the division used to decide on a broad Kindergarten to Grade 12 mask mandate. He added that it only came about because the board’s governance is broken, and Bratvold is in control. Bratvold did not respond to that allegation during the meeting.

“I don’t think anything changed last night,” Lockhart said. “They were reluctant, he didn’t really share how the trustees came to that decision. He articulated how he had been speaking with the local health officer, which is great—I wasn’t aware of that—so it was good to learn that. But, I mean, that was just him and another gentleman and the trustees were still largely kept aside, so that wasn’t very encouraging.”

Director of education Robert Bratvold and trustees attempted to address their concerns on Tuesday, but wanted to address them again in a more complete way later.

“It’s important that the board hears the various perspectives and experiences,” Bratvold said. “Understanding them is crucial, (as is) trying to share with our parents some of the reasons for the process that we went through to get to the decision,” Bratvold said.

The board hopes to have Medical Health Officer Dr. Khami Chokani as a guest at the September meeting to speak about where the data behind the mask mandate came from.

Bratvold said that was already in the planning stages before the parents group addressed the board.

“That was something that we talked about earlier as an opportunity to hear from our local medical health officer, to get a sense of status and perspective and his expertise,” Bratvold explained. “That was something we talked about before. It is related to masks, but it is also much broader than just that.”

Bratvold said phone calls, emails and future presentations at board meetings are all welcome if parents want to voice concerns.

“We don’t want to end the conversation or end the communication,” he said.

Mental health was one of the group’s largest concerns. Lockhart said the division pays “a lot of lip service” to the issue, and talks about it lots in print material, but didn’t mention anything else they’ve done to improve support for students. He also said there was no acknowledgement of the negative impacts of COVID in general, and masks specifically.

The group also raised concerns about the plan being announced on Aug. 25, not long before school starts on Sept. 2.

Bratvold said the division did the best they could with such a short window to make their decision, but acknowledged the timing was problematic.

“The context was determined on August 20, so there realistically is not enough time for meaningful consultation…. There just isn’t time, and I think a consultation last June would also not have been as meaningful because the circumstances have changed substantially over the summer.”

“The timing did not allow for a full consultation and we communicated as best we could and as thorough as we could in as many channels as we could to make sure people knew of the plan, had a chance to review the plan for the school year, and share their perspectives with us,” he said.

All parents in attendance were from rural schools, and many said the school division’s size, demographics and geography made it difficult to make their voice heard.

“I don’t know that they have as much sensitivity towards that difference as they should,” Lockhart said. “They kind of said, ‘well we have got five and five on the board but you need to acknowledge that some of our classrooms have 10 kids in them, (and) we can easily social distance.”

Lockhart said he made phone calls to rural trustees to discuss the issue. He said it was frustrating, since some trustees told him they didn’t learn about the plan until later too.

“They said, ‘we are on the same page as you and we didn’t learn of this until very late.’ That just really speaks to the broken communication, (and) also how they are not acknowledging that rural trustees are saying something different than maybe what the folks in the city are saying,” he said.

Bratvold made a point to explain that the division has fewer mask requirements this year than before, something he said parents need to know heading into the school year.

Bratvold also said the plan was flexible, and could be changed if circumstances improved.

“This is not a decision for the school year,” he explained. “We continue to evaluate and monitor the decision. We want to get to the best learning environment we can as soon as we can, so we will continue to monitor the decision.”

Lockhart and the other parents said they are not done with the issue.

“I have very strong convictions and will continue to carry on down this path,” Lockhart explained. “I know we are not the only school division that thinks this is significant.”