REGINA -- The province is recommending children under the age of 12 and unvaccinated teachers and support staff wear masks in Saskatchewan schools.

The government updated its COVID-19 guidance for schools in a release on Friday morning.

"Our provincial public health officers have determined that while we are making these recommendations overall, it is safe for school to return to traditional in class learning," Dustin Duncan, Saskatchewan’s minister of education, told CTV News on Friday.

Masks can be removed once students are seated in their classrooms.

The Saskatchewan NDP called the recommendations a "joke".

"The idea that they would tell kids to wear masks in the hallways and then take them off at their desks when they’re actually sitting beside people for hours on end, that makes no sense," NDP leader Ryan Meili said.

Duncan said Saskatchewan has to learn to live with COVID-19.

"We will see a variety of different plans going forward, based on the input of local public health, the local, elected school boards, and the situation at hand in the different parts of the province," he said. "We're going to continue to provide that support, put forward these recommendations and allow for school divisions to adjust their plans."

Meili said Moe’s government shouldn’t be offloading the responsibility of keeping kids safe on schools and school divisions.

"His choices have already cost the lives of too many Saskatchewan people and this time. As we head into the fourth wave, those lives could be the lives of kids," Meili said.

The province said recommendations regarding masking and other measures in schools will be revisited once vaccines are approved and widely available for children under 12.

When COVID-19 cases are identified, public health officials will notify schools and school divisions, so students and parents can be informed. The province said contact tracing will occur and unvaccinated close contacts might be directed to self-isolate.

"We’re starting the school year from a different point than we were last year," Duncan said. "Masking may be recommended at some point in some locations throughout the province, but that will depend on the number of cases within an area and areas where vaccination rates might be lower."

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, told CTV News that the province will have to address each situation as it arises.

"Some of the rural areas and the northern areas that have a lower vaccination rate, unfortunately, they may see larger outbreaks," he said.

"Now as fall comes, as we’re indoors, we’re back to work, public places where it's a bit congested, it makes sense to put a mask on, always carry your mask with you and put it on."

VACCINATIONS

The Saskatchewan Health Authority will be offering school-based vaccinations clinics again this year.

"We saw some really good success through the school vaccination program, when it was up and running at the end of last school year," Duncan said.

The government also announced that anyone turning 12 in the current year is immediately eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Individuals born in 2009 can now be vaccinated, regardless of their birth date, at any COVID-19 vaccination site, including pop-up clinics, participating pharmacies, or school-based vaccination clinics.

"This does open up some additional students that formerly weren't eligible but are now eligible," Duncan added.

The union representing Saskatchewan's teachers says the COVID-19 recommendations for schools released by the province aren't enough.

“Encouragement for vaccines and masking are a good place to start, but it isn’t enough,” Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation president Patrick Maze said in a news release.

“Specific and concrete directives are what school divisions, teachers and parents are looking for right now," Maze said.