The Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation says it is encouraged the Ministry of Education is considering masks in schools as a contingency plan; however, it says a number of questions and concerns remain.
“We all want to return to the classroom, but it must be done safely,” said Patrick Maze, President, Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation Tuesday. “Considering masks is a step in the right direction. Teachers and parents are questioning whether this is enough and why there are inconsistencies between the broader public health measures and what is required in schools.”
The federation acknowledges a return to school will not be completely risk-free, but should be made as safe as possible by exploring all options to avoid the Three Cs – closed spaces, crowded spaces and close contacts – in schools.
“A successful return to school is important for students, families, communities and the economy,” said Maze. “Student safety goes beyond the classroom. Parents, teachers and students deserve to be confident in the plans. Resources to prevent transmission, access to testing and capacity of public health to handle large volumes of contact tracing are imperative.”
The federation encourages parents to review and understand what procedures are in place for their child’s school. Since each division created its plan, divisions and elected trustees are best positioned to answer specific questions, says the STF.
Meanwhile, the province’s largest union representing education support workers says the government’s approval of back-to-school plans in September does not provide the conditions necessary for a safe return in these far from normal times.
“The plans to return back-to-school by the provincial government lack the overall prerequisite safeguards and resources needed to protect against virus transmission before full in-classroom learning begins,” said Judy Henley, president of CUPE Saskatchewan. “The rushed implementation and lack of key details leaves significant doubt that education staff and students will be properly protected.”
CUPE wrote the minister of education ahead of the final plans expressing its concern over the government leaving out front-line education support staff on the Education Response Planning Team charged with reviewing the final re-open plans from school divisions. In its letter, the union warned the minister about conditions that prevent a safe return, including the lack of preparation time for support staff to get the plans in place before students return for the new school year and the provision of adequate personal protective equipment. The union also drew attention to cleaning cuts in the Prairie South School Division impacting Moose Jaw area schools and the lack of additional support from the province to boost the cleaning levels needed.
“You can have plans on paper, but the fact is the government is placing the burden on front-line staff without extra resources, without adequate preparation time, and without the additional cleaning staff necessary to keep students safe,” said Jackie Christianson, chair of the CUPE Saskatchewan Education Workers Steering Committee and an educational assistant. “The plans for re-opening schools are in need of a reality check from the front lines: education support staff are stretched far too thin, we are being left without the safety protections needed from this coronavirus, and we are not being heard.”
Safe Schools Plan
All school division plans have incorporated eight safe components that include:
1. Safe Attendance
To allow for all members of our school communities to attend classes safely, self-screening measures will be implemented, including:
• Parents and caregivers being asked to monitor their children for any signs or symptoms of illness. If any symptoms are present, the student is to remain home.
• For those who are unsure if they or a student present symptoms or may need to be tested for COVID-19, should refer to the Saskatchewan COVID-19 Self-Assessment Tool.
• Dedicated quarantine area in every school where individuals exhibiting symptoms will properly isolate from the rest of the school until a parent or caregiver can safely pick them up.
2. Safe Transportation
The ministry has also developed the following transportation protocols to ensure students are coming to and from school safely, these include:
• Assigned seating for students and a record of this seating plan on school buses.
• Students who live in the same household will be seated together.
• Where possible, the ministry is encouraging parents to transport their own children to and from school.
• Cleaning and sanitation of buses or other vehicles used to transport students is required between each run.
3. Safe Access
Students will be able to safely access and move throughout school facilities through the implementation of:
• Dedicated entrance and exit doors.
• Staggered recess, lunch, and other class transition times to allow for additional space.
• Controlled flow of students and staff in common school areas, incorporating the use of directional signage and floor markings.
4. Safe Facilities
Increased sanitation measures in school facilities and the promotion of proper hygiene practices will be implemented. This includes:
• Increased availability of hand sanitizer wherever possible.
• Custodial staff will provide consistent sanitation of school facilities.
• Maintain hygiene of all frequently-touched surfaces and objects such as toys and classroom equipment.
5. Safe Classrooms
Measures are to be implemented to reduce risk of transmission in the classroom, including:
• Wherever possible, limiting physical contact such as hugs and handholding, as well as encouraging the use of alternative greetings such as “air high fives”.
• Utilizing outdoor spaces for learning when possible.
• Clear protocols for bringing supplementary school materials such as backpacks and school supplies in and out of schools.
• Classroom configuration to minimize contact.
6. Safe Supports
Considerations have been taken to safely support the learning needs of all students. Local health officials will be providing support to divisions for the implementation of these measures, including:
• Personal interactions with intensive needs/immune-compromised students’ conditions will be in place to allow for the provision of supports within a safe and secure environment, which may include in-school setting or other appropriate spaces for the delivery of education.
• Medically fragile students will have supports in place to address their educational needs.
• School divisions will work with their local medical health officer to address the unique needs of immunocompromised students, to prepare for the ongoing safety of students and staff in proactive and responsive measures, and will have alternative learning opportunities in place for students who are unable to attend school for medical reasons.
• School divisions will communicate regarding these supports directly with their local school communities.
• The Ministry of Education will continue to support mental wellness through initiatives such as our work with Kids Help Phone to promote professional counselling services, which are available 24 hours a day.
• To facilitate constant communication between school divisions and local health officers as we move through the school year, weekly briefs will occur between the education sector and health officials to bolster monitoring and access to local context and needs.
7. Safe Activities
To ensure adequate safety measures are taken, schools will adapt group activities to reduce physical contact, including:
• Established protocols for the reduced use of shared materials and classroom supplies.
• Identifying alternatives to in-person assemblies, such as virtual assemblies.
• Participation in extra-curricular activities will be dependent on the most current guidelines as provided by Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer.
• Extra-curricular activities such as indoor sports are allowed as announced in the second part of Phase 4 of Re-Open Saskatchewan Plan.
8. Safe Alternatives
To ensure preparedness, there are four scenarios that may be activated regionally or provincially based on the advice of our Chief Medical Health Officer, they include:
• Level 1: Return to school, as close to normal as possible, with additional health measures and precautions. This is the scenario we are planning for come September 1.
• Level 2: Mask usage as determined by the Chief Medical Health Officer. These masks are being purchased centrally by the ministry of education and distributed to school divisions.
• Level 3: In the event it becomes necessary, school capacity will be reduced. This may include establishing cohorts and hybrid learning models as considerations.
• Level 4: Implementing learning continuity plans, which means transitioning to mandatory remote learning.