Saskatchewan schools to close Thursday due to COVID-19

Local school divisions had been planning for possibility of closures

SCREEN CAPTURE Saskatchewan’s chief medical officer Dr. Saqib Shahab speaks during a press conference last year.

Michael Oleksyn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter and Peter Lozinski, Daily Herald

The Government of Saskatchewan announced on Monday that all classes in pre-k-12 schools in Saskatchewan will be suspended indefinitely effective March 20 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Daycares aren’t closing at this time, but ones co-located with schools will be affected by the closure.

The announcement came just 24 hours after the province said they wouldn’t be closing schools because there wasn’t an indication of community spread.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Premier Scott Moe said one of the things that changed in 24 hours was community spread seen in Alberta, which reported over a dozen new cases Monday morning that weren’t related to travel.

“We are at different levels of this pandemic in different areas of Canada,” he said.

“We are working closely with our colleagues as well as one another to find that balance of normalcy of life with the most effective proactive measures. We’re trying to strike that balance.”

Moe said it is the appropriate time to put these measures into place.

“We had a discussion with respect to how we can be sure we are proactive and preventing those types of occurrences here in Saskatchewan,” he said.

“We will step up our restrictions are required as we go through the next couple of days. We’ll balance that with some degree of normalcy in our communities. We have to remain calm as a society as we move through this. There are essential services we’ll have to look at at some point in time potentially. We’ll know more as we go through this, but there are changes to our life as we know it.”

Moe said that the province is making decisions based on medical advice and other factors. While the public had been asking “ambitiously and aggressively” for school closures, he said, the decision was made based on the community transmissions seen in Alberta, not because of public pressure. A seventh presumptive case was announced for Saskatchewan Monday morning. That case was also travel related.

Moe said decisions have to be made based on medical advice and safety for families.

On Sunday, March 15 Chief Medical Officer  Saqib Shahab indicated that school closures would be based on a number of factors including evidence of sustained transmission within the community, the rapid increase of local cases and transmission without a known link to travel or confirmed cases.

There continues to be no evidence that any of the criteria have been met. Children remaining in schools between March 16 and March 19 face a low risk of exposure to COVID-19.

 Every student will receive a final grade based on their current grade and students will progress to their next grade level next year. Every student who is eligible to graduate this year will graduate. The Ministry of Education and School Divisions will work with Saskatchewan Post-Secondary institutions to adapt entry requirements for programs commencing in the next academic year.

Teachers and staff can work from home or in schools as scheduled during the class cancellations. For the rest of the scheduled school year, the Ministry will work with School Divisions and teachers to implement a supplemental curriculum program through distance and alternative learning methods. While this supplemental curriculum will have no impact on final grades it will ensure that students seeking to continue learning will have the resources necessary to do so.

The measures apply to daycares that are co-located with schools but do not apply to licensed daycare facilities outside of schools.

Further measures regarding licensed daycare facilities are being considered and will be implemented at a later date.

Officials are examing options to provide childcare services for individuals that are providing essential services during the COVID-19 response.

Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Shaqib Shahab said friends, family and community members will need support. Still, he said, people should stay home as much as possible and self-isolate both if they’ve travelled or if they show any symptoms.

“Self-isolation at home for two weeks is essential to keep this outbreak to as low a level as possible for as long as possible,” Shahab said.

“We are several weeks behind our fellow provinces. We don’t want to be, as much as we can, in the place of other provinces.”

He said it’s good to go early on measures such as closing schools to limit spread, and while for most people it will be reassuring, some will need support during this time.

He said while risk is low in school settings, it’s important to start easing into those restrictions.

He added that testing will be restricted to people who have travelled or who have severe respiratory symptoms with no other known cause for the time being unless the province sees a cluster of community transmission.

“It’s not just travel itself,” he said. “It’s how we interact with people anywhere. All f those things are going to be important in the future. How we interact as we move and visit is going to be important as well.”

As for rural Saskatchewan, he said that while the geography of the province may slow the spread, smaller communities also tend to have large populations of elderly people and a lot of activities going on.

‘We have to think about how (those activities) happen, should they happen and how to (practice social distancing,),” he said. “If you have the slightest cough, sit them out.”

Schools had been planning for closures

Herald file photo. Robert Bratvold answers a question during the Saskatchewan Rivers Public School Division annual general meeting in 2016. On Friday, provincial government sent a letter to the division asking them to find ways to freeze labour costs for the next year. Bratvold said there are some concerns about the request, but no final decisions would be made until March at the earliest.

“SRPSD has been planning for this possibility but we will need to await further details from the Ministry of Education around its policy related to calendar, learning outcomes, grade promotion, credits and graduation. Once we have that information our SRPSD team will implement our local plan and communicate with students, families and staff,” Saskatchewan Rivers  School Division director of education Robert Bratvold said.

For the period of March 16 to March 19 pre-K-12 classes will wind down. This means that parents who are able to keep children at home should do so immediately with no absence or grade impacts. Parents with limited childcare options have a window to plan for class suspensions.

In a statement on their website, the Prince Albert Catholic Division explained that they recognize the significant impact this will have on students, families, and staff. This precautionary measure is being taken to decrease the spread of COVID-19 and help keep our communities safe.

“We would like to thank all of the students, parents and staff for their cooperation and understanding at this time. These steps are necessary to ensure our communities are safe,” Catholic Division board chair said in the release.

They explained that their priority remains to provide ongoing education to our students and ensuring their continued success for the remainder of the 2019- 2020 school year. They will communicate those plans as soon as possible through communications that will occur through media, their website, School Messenger and social media.

Teacher negotiations to continue if STF willing

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

Monday’s press conference also addressed the ongoing labour dispute between the province and the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF).

The STF had begun sanctions early last week that resulted in the cancellation of extracurriculars.

On Monday, Moe said the labour dispute and coronavirus concerns are separate conversations, with the novel coronavirus currently taking precedence.

Still, Education Minister Gord Wyant said he’s ready to return to the table if the STF is.

“We’ll continue to have any conversations with the STF in terms of negotiating,” he said. “We’re willing to continue the conversation.”