Pandemic protocols remain unchanged in Sask. schools as Omicron cases surge
Pandemic protocols in Saskatchewan schools will remain mostly unchanged, according to the province’s education minister.
New guidelines around reporting a positive rapid antigen test result were announced by the Government of Saskatchewan on Wednesday. If a positive rapid or PCR test result is received, staff and students are to report the result to their local school office. The school will then send a notification to those who may be considered close contacts.
Speaking Wednesday, Education Minister Dustin Duncan encouraged Saskatchewan families to continue using rapid tests as part of a “weekly routine,” as students begin the winter semester.
“We each play a part in ensuring that we are being as safe as possible, to allow our schools to continue to operate in-person learning,” Duncan said.
Saskatchewan residents who are fully vaccinated are not required to confirm their rapid test result with a PCR test.
Fully vaccinated close contacts in schools can continue to attend classes until they start showing symptoms. In Saskatchewan, fully vaccinated close contacts are no longer required to self-isolate and will be instructed to self-monitor.
Those who are not fully vaccinated and are a close contact of someone outside of their household can also continue to attend classes, take the bus and go to childcare until they start showing symptoms. They are not permitted to attend extra-curricular activities for the 10-day self-monitoring period.
If those who are not fully vaccinated are a close contact of someone within their household, they are required to isolate for 10 days.
This flow chart provided by the Government of Saskatchewan explains the new self-isolation rules implemented on Dec. 30, 2021. (Source: Government of Saskatchewan)
Outbreaks, which the government is now defining as a cluster of three or more cases – up from two- will be investigated by public health officials who may offer more guidance.
School staff will continue to use surgical masks and distribute rapid tests to families. Schools will continue to observe increased cleaning protocols.
The discussion about a delayed start to the semester continued on Wednesday. Saskatchewan is the only province in Canada that did not push back the start date for students, following the holiday break.
Duncan said he couldn’t speak to the COVID-19 situations in other provinces, but noted Saskatchewan's high availability of rapid tests and relatively low hospitalization numbers.
“We know that in-person education is important and moving to extended absences or remote learning, extended period of time away from our students, their social networks, that is not consequence free,” Duncan said.
Following calls from the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation to delay the start of school due to rising COVID-19 cases, the education minister said there was “no interest” in extending the break during discussions with school divisions and the Saskatchewan School Boards Association.
“We likely will have obviously higher case counts in the coming days, and that may cause disruptions in the classrooms, but that’s going to be the reality whether we extended the holiday break by two days or an additional week, or 10 days or whatever the matter would be,” he said.
Patrick Maze, the president of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation, said teachers, students and family need and deserve more tangible support than the province is providing.
“We called for a two-day delay to the return to school to allow teachers and principals to put additional measures in place before students returned,” Maze said. “It is just a few days into the return to school and we are already hearing of significant challenges in our schools.”
Maze said schools in the province are already reporting significant staffing shortages due to staff testing positive or having COVID-19 symptoms. He said one school is down eight staff members and another is down 16.
The federation is calling on the government to implement new measures in schools, which include supplying N95 masks to all staff and students, mandating masks and proof of vaccination for all activities, updating the definition of fully vaccinated to include booster shots, opening up eligibility of booster shots to children turning five this year and reinstating the education sector response team.
“We are also calling on the government to communicate what the threshold is for classes and schools to move to online morning, the process for monitoring and implementing moves to online learning and provide support to schools to implement these changes so it does not become the responsibility of our principals,” Maze said.
With the precedent set by the previous four waves of COVID-19, Duncan said there would likely be disruptions in individual classrooms and schools when cases arise, but a province-wide delay was not on the table at this time.
“To say that 188,000 students across the province all need to start at home this week, that just wasn’t something that we felt was necessary at this time,” he said.
Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, said the province is still one to two weeks behind other jurisdictions in Canada when it comes to the Omicron wave, so health officials will continue to monitor hospitalization numbers as the weeks progress.
“We will be at different parts at different times over the next four to six weeks,” Shahab said. “Even though Omicron is less severe, even if it’s a fifth less severe but five times more transmissible, it will still cause pressures on the hospital system.”
Local medical experts say the current measures alone are not enough.
"I do think at some point we do have to look at other measures to control community spread,” said Dr. Dennis Kendel who is a physician and public policy consultant. “Our schools are opening and the virus will spread throughout the schools anyone who thinks it wont is delusional.”
Rob Westfield, an educational support worker and chairperson of the CUPE Saskatchewan Education Workers’ Steering Committee, said the government has failed at providing a safe environment.
"The Saskatchewan government has failed in providing a safe environment not just for the staff at the education centre but the students as well,” said Westfield.
Westfield adds that safety should be a top priority for all involved.