The Saskatchewan government stopped short of making masks mandatory for students when schools resume this fall during the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, masks are being recommended in high-traffic areas — including hallways and buses — for all Saskatchewan students in grades 4 to 12.
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Education Minister Gordon Wyant said it will be up to school divisions to determine how they want to implement the guidance from the province’s chief medical health officer.
“The decision on whether or not there will be masking in any particular school will be left to local decision-makers in consultation with public health,” Wyant said.
“Every school is different, every school division is different. In terms of ensuring there is adequate protection for students, that local school division in concert with their local health officers will be the best ones to determine where masks are appropriate and where they are not.
“What we’re trying to do today is to provide guidance to those school divisions that want to move forward with a masking policy.”
NDP education critic Carla Beck said she is “astounded” by what she says is the lack of planning by the government for a safe return to schools.
“Saskatchewan families have done what has been asked of them during the pandemic. The least we expect is a real plan to get our kids back to school safely,” Beck said in a statement.
“It is incredibly frustrating that once again the government has chosen to direct school divisions to ‘find creative solutions’ rather to provide clear guidance or funding on cohorting and physical distancing.”
The Saskatchewan government also said on Tuesday that school start and end times along with breaks should be staggered, if possible, when classes resume in September.
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It’s part of the province’s Level 2 guidance for its Safe Schools Plan.
Students in grades 9 to 12 may also be required to wear masks in classrooms where it is not possible to maintain physical distancing or where students are outside their classroom cohort, according to Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province’s chief medical health officer.
“We are conscious that we are starting the school year in a school year where our general COVID transmission rate is a bit higher than May/June, but not too high,” Shahab said.
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“Having said that, it’s a reasonable thing to start with Level 2 for all schools, where mask use is an option that should be considered, and schools need to apply it appropriately in their settings, whether that’s corridors, lockers, washrooms, or even the classroom where distancing isn’t possible.”
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Shahab said a number of additional measures must be included in all school division plans.
Among those are ensuring teacher and class cohorting, including cohorting a limited number of teachers to students and keeping students in one cohort as much as possible.
For elementary students, their cohort will be their classroom, according to Shahab.
School divisions are being encouraged to find creative solutions for cohorting high school students.
All instruction must be front-facing, and any exceptions must be approved by public health.
The province has been under pressure by the opposition and critics to revamp its Safe Schools Plan announced last week.
“Saskatchewan parents, students, teachers, and school-based staff are still stuck with the worst plan in the country,” Beck said.
“Further guidance is badly needed, but the guidance they’ve provided so far is not nearly enough. Parents still do not know when, and under what conditions, mask use will be mandatory.”
Read more: Saskatchewan parents, teachers, doctors call for a safer back-to-school plan
Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation, says today’s announcement shows the government is listening.
“We want to keep teachers and students safe and school employees safe and prior to this, it just seemed like it was kind of a free for all,” Maze told Global News.
“So, we’re happy that it’s moving in the right direction.”
Students are being encouraged to bring their own non-medical cloth masks and the province said it has procured six-million disposable masks at a cost of $2.3 million. The masks will be available to all students, teachers and staff on a daily basis.
The change follows another development in the government’s back-to-school plan.
On Monday, the province said all schools must designate an “isolation room” where staff and students exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms can be placed if they are not able to immediately leave the school.
Students will remain in the room until a parent can pick them up.
Schools will keep records of where students sit to support public health investigations and contact tracing.
Any teacher developing symptoms must notify the school immediately, who will then find someone else to lead the class.
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