School divisions waiting to hear back from province as local jurisdictions draft COVID-19 response plans

Lorel Trumier /Herald File Photo

With August approaching, schools across the province continue to tweak their plans for reopening. In-person classes are set to begin for the K-12 school system this September. Classes were suspended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While some have criticized the lack of clear guidelines from the province, the Ministry of Education explained in an email that the return to school guidelines, developed with the support of the Chief Medical Health Officer and Saskatchewan Education’s Response Planning Team (RPT), were distributed to school divisions in June to begin more specific local planning. They added that all divisions submitted their local plans to the Ministry of Education by June 30.

Those local plans will guide how each division moves forward. The province has cited the local autonomy of school divisions in determining how best a return to classes would work for them.

Lorel Trunier, director of education for the Prince Albert Catholic School Division, explained that the division has completed their draft plan including elements around education, health and wellness and how to engage stakeholders including staff, students and staff as the date approaches.

“Obviously it is a fluid situation, COVID in Saskatchewan. We understand that there will perhaps be some local response that might be different due to an outbreak or that kind of thing in our area or an outbreak in another area. We might be able to function where there school divisions may not,” Trumier said.

She said that they are working with local leadership such as Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Khami Chokani to refine the final plan.

“We are working through any of the pieces that we can refine so we can understand clearly what it will take to prevent the spread of COVID and also ensure that there is health and safety as a part of our reopen plan,” she said.

They have already begun to work on sourcing for protective supplies and equipment like masks, shield and hand sanitizer as well as signage to inform students, staff and parents how things will work.

“We are looking forward to getting closer to September. We are excited to see the students and hoping that it all goes well that we can continue to move forward with our reopen plan,” Trumier said.

The school division, she said, is looking at things such as instruction, recess and lunch.

“Those are the pieces that we are working on to make sure that we have our students and our staff as safe as possible,” she said.

Premier Scott Moe, during Tuesday’s press availability for COVID-19, gave a similar explanation as to where things are at for reopening. He said the response planning team has been working with school divisions across the province. Saskatchewan Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab added that school divisions work with public health on a regular basis, even outside of the pandemic.

“Every year when school starts there is obviously close collaboration with public health and local school boards around the usual outbreaks that happen every fall, there is influenza, there is other coughs and colds,” Shahab said.

Shahab explained that the success of daycares being open throughout the pandemic without any significant concerns was a good sign and gives the Saskatchewan Health Authority confidence going forward with elementary schools.

“If COVID transmission remains low, schools will start with some special guidance around avoiding large assemblies and treating the class as a cohort and some measures that reduce transmission risk within the class setting,” he said.

Shahab said that the goal was to have as normal of a school experience as possible, because of the way schools closed in March had possible impacts on things such as mental development, social development and social skills.

“Certainly if there was a case of a cluster in a school public health would work closely with the schools for what further steps need to be taken. And certainly if there is higher transmission in a community where there is a school, if there are any changes to school operations that advice would be given,” Shahab said.

“The expectation would be that the committee will be getting back to the school divisions very soon so that our teachers, our educators, our administration staff, our bus drivers all have the opportunity to have some time to prepare for a little bit of a different return to school,” Moe explained.

He said that would also allow parents to understand what the guideliens are specific to their situation.

“It is our hope that the Education Response Team … will be communicating back to the individual school boards with what the parameters are for a safe return to school,” Moe said.

According to the ministry, division plans are currently being reviewed by the committee to ensure they adhere to the provincial guidelines. School divisions will receive feedback on their local plans before the end of July, in order to ensure enough time for divisions to put their plans into place. Once they’re approved, plans are expected to be shared with the local community.

“It will be soon that we will be able to release the plan moving forward,” Trumier said.

“We are still refining it and finessing it and adjusting it to make sure we have everything that we possibly can.”

She said the division is looking forward to seeing its students, and that it has a survey parents can fill out to submit questions or concenrs as the province approaches the opening of schools.

The Saskatchewan Rivers Public School Division has a similar approach.

“We continue to work on providing a more detailed plan, but there have not been any new details provided by the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Education so we continue to use the original documents for plan development,” Saskatchewan Rivers School Division Director of Education Robert Bratvold said in an email.

Opposition and parents to call for clear guidelines and funding for return to classroom plan

On Wednesday, NDP Education Critic Carla Beck was joined by Elya Lam, a mother with serious concerns about sending two of her four children to school in the fall, and Saskatoon small business owner Lindsay Sanderson who has a child who should be entering kindergarten, to call for adequate guidelines and necessary funding for students and teachers to return to schools safely.

“I have heard from many teachers and parents from throughout the province and there is hope and a willingness to have students back in the classroom this fall, but there are still many blanks that have not been filled out by the Sask. Party,” Beck said in a release.

“This government has completely failed the people of Saskatchewan when it comes to coming up with a plan and properly funding student’s and teachers’ return to the classroom in the fall.”

“It’s important that we reopen our schools, but it has to be done in a way that is safe for students, teachers and parents,” Lam, a former teacher with the Saskatoon Public School Division, said.

“That won’t be the case unless the province implements stronger governmental regulations and increases funding. We need our government to be proactive. Failure to get our school reopenings right could have tragic consequences.”

“Without proper guidelines, the government’s plan gives me no certainty about what plans to make with my business and my child possibly entering Kindergarten,” said Sanderson. “The lack of a plan leaves women throughout the province out of the workforce in large numbers. I am just one of the many mothers being forced to choose between the mental and physical health of our children, and our careers.”

In their plan to send children back into classrooms, the government did not include any new funding that wasn’t already penciled in for education before the pandemic hit. Other provinces, as opposed to Saskatchewan, have plans that include having reduced class sizes. Other provinces also include plans for different scenarios whereas Saskatchewan is only planning for the best-case scenario.

Speaking to reporters this week, Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation president Patrick Maze said it was insulting the province had money for new turf for a Saskatoon field and to support the Riders, but wouldn’t dedicate anything to schools.

The Sask. Party has pointed to its COVID-19 contingency fund should any additional funds be needed, and has said that school divisions realized savings from closing their doors in March that could be used to fund additional measures in September.

Beck said she has heard from many teachers who have concerns with not being given any proper guidelines on how to social distance in their classroom when they have too many students in their class to do so.

“Prior to the pandemic we had concerns about overcrowding in classrooms, about the lack of resources in the classroom – those problems are only exasperated by the lack of funding and an adequate plan from the government,” Beck said.

“The government needs to step up with funding today to ensure the well-being and safety of students at the centre, where parents and teachers are given a clear idea of what to expect as September draws closer.”