Saskatchewan Needs a Better Back-To-School Plan

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Kirsten J. Fisher and Charles W. Smith

On 4 August, the Government of Saskatchewan announced its back-to-school plan.  In this plan, the government provided no concrete strategy to address class sizes and safe physical distancing or to give parents options for in-person or remote learning. The province also did not clearly outline alternatives for immune compromised students. Contrary to many other provincial plans, the Saskatchewan government did not even introduce a policy requiring masks as students and teachers return to classrooms in September. The Minister’s decision to start the school year “as close to normal as possible” doesn’t appear to be grounded in the reality of the world’s worst health emergency in over 100 years. 

The current plan seems to be that students and staff will be returning to classrooms that are overcrowded and where teachers, substitute teachers, students, and staff will be in close contact with one another.

We are alarmed that the policy announced on 4 August reflects a serious lack of concern for the health and safety of everyone returning to schools in September.

We recognize that a lot of factors remain unknown. We know that the research regarding the spread and containment of Covid-19 is still fluid and progressing and that research concerning children, their exposure, and their ability to transmit Covid-19 has been inconsistent and evolving. This includes a study published 30 July in JAMA Pediatrics, a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association, that concludes that “young children can potentially be important drivers of SARS-CoV-2 spread in the general population”. A report published by Toronto Sick Kids Hospital on 29 July states that “there are emerging data suggesting that children 10 years and older may transmit SARS-CoV-2 at rates similar to those of adults”.

There is also evidence of disastrous results from “as close to normal as possible” with Israel as an example of a country that went back to school with full-sized classes reportedly resulting in an increase of from well below 100 cases a day to over 1500 daily. It is worth noting that Israel also opened its bars and other public spaces at the same time as it did its schools, but Saskatchewan has also opened bars and other public spaces and is experiencing an increase in the number of infections. In the United States, the CDC has pointed to an outbreak at a Georgia summer camp (where staff, but not campers, were required to wear masks) as having implications for schools reopening; while the camp is different in that it was a sleepaway camp, it is similar in its size and number of children (approximately 600). “Interestingly, a higher percentage of the youngest children tested positive: 51% among those age 6-10 years” of those tested, in a matter of days not weeks or months.

Evidence from other jurisdictions demonstrates that there are more effective ways to go back-to-school safely, in a manner that can avoid large clusters of Covid-19 outbreaks.  It seems clear that smaller class sizes are important. Strategies taken in Denmark, Norway, Finland, Germany, Greece, Belgium, France, and Switzerland offer examples of this. (See: Back to School ; What the US Can Learn from Other Countries ; Summary of School Re-Opening Models )

The government of Saskatchewan’s plan does not offer an effective way for staff and students to avoid infection. Instead, it seems to rely on assumptions that either children will not be infected or will be infected with mild symptoms, and that they will not be able to spread Covid-19. These are high-risk assumptions that put our children, educators, and communities at risk.

The lack of a clear plan also raises questions about contingencies, or reactions if Covid-19 does appear in our schools. Will children with any symptoms be asked to self-isolate for 14 days and miss two weeks of school, assuming the infection is not confirmed?  Will teachers or substitute teachers be asked to isolate if they call in sick?  If children have confirmed cases of Covid-19, will they be permitted back into the schools once the symptoms decrease?

To date, we have no answers. It appears that the current situation asks us to wait until people are sick before the government will react, rather than assemble a plan that is proactive.

Parents will bear the brunt of these risks. Not all parents can afford the luxury of home-schooling or extended sick days if schools shut down again in response to rising infection rates. Communities that have been hardest-hit by Covid due to socio-economic inequities or racial injustices will once again bear the brunt of these reactive decisions.

This seemingly lack-of-a-plan plan is extremely troubling and needs to be reconsidered.

While not specific to Saskatchewan, the most up-to-date report from Toronto Sick Kids Hospital on reopening Ontario schools stresses that the government must prioritize reducing class sizes (“COVID-19: Guidance for School Reopening”).  

Having reviewed the reporting on safe back-to-school protocols, we feel that the Government of Saskatchewan must adopt measures to address these concerns:

·      Most importantly, everything possible must be done to reduce class sizes to maintain safe and effective physical distancing.

·      Students should be provided with face coverings as needed, and there should be a government policy recommending face coverings in order to avoid school transmissions, (and in the absence of a policy requiring face coverings, consideration should be given to the potential social cost of bullying or ostracizing of children who choose to wear masks in the absence of a clear policy).

·      We need a plan for Covid-19 testing in schools, equipping schools with appropriate tools.

·      Students, families, teachers, and staff must be assured they will be given the most up-to-date information about possible outbreaks in schools; schools and parents must have an efficient and reliable means of timely communication.

·      Teachers, support staff, and maintenance workers must be provided with appropriate PPE and training in how to assist children with face coverings and other safety protocols, including discussions about how to talk to children about compliance.

·      The province must commit to spending the appropriate funds to protect workers and children in schools. The current lack of funding does not adequately recognize the crisis that we are in.

As parents, grandparents, students, teachers, school staff, and community members, we see the need for a back-to-school plan that we can trust to give us a chance at keeping our kids and communities safe and the kids in school this year, without also compromising the need for quality education during a global pandemic. Families must not be forced to choose between their health and their education.