COVID variants drive 'scary' Moose Jaw, Sask. school infections

·3 min read

Last week marked a COVID-19 turning point at Moose Jaw’s Prairie South School Division: Variant strains of the virus hit it fast and hard Tuesday through Thursday, running "rampant" in one of its buildings.

Director of education Tony Baldwin said it forced him and division staff to quickly move to online learning for all kindergarten to Grade 12 students, starting this week.

“Just the pace that those cases came at was quite scary for us,” he said.

Baldwin spoke with the Leader-Post as coronavirus variants of concern spread outside the hard-hit Regina area, especially in the south central region that includes Moose Jaw. As of Sunday, the region recorded 109 COVID-19 variant infections.

Over the weekend, the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) warned Moose Jaw residents about the spread, while deploying mobile COVID-19 testing vans to the city for Monday and Tuesday to identify new cases.

The variants of concern, originally identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa, are 36 to 70 percent more transmissible than the original strain first detected in Wuhan, China, the SHA noted.

Last week was a clear example of that, according to Baldwin. “By the time we realized we had one positive case, the spread was so fast," he said.

“We reacted to that in a way we have been for the last six or seven months here, but we were so far behind with that first notification that it just ran rampant in one of our buildings.”

Ministry of Health data shows three schools in the division — Central Collegiate, Cornerstone Christian and Palliser Heights, all in Moose Jaw — recorded COVID-19 infections on Wednesday. The schools reported one, five and two cases, respectively. None of those cases are listed as outbreaks, according to the data.

“Public health has been telling us (variant strains are) passed from person to person so much more quickly, and it's so much more effective in catching that by the time you've got a case, you're sunk, basically,” Baldwin said.

Though he didn’t name which one, he said a school in the division has every student and staff member self-isolating, since variant cases were reported last week.

Since Friday, Moose Jaw’s Catholic school division, Holy Trinity, has recorded two COVID-19 infections among staff and students across its seven Moose Jaw schools. (Its Swift Current and Shaunavon schools are offering in-person learning for now.)

Director of education Sean Chase said the SHA’s expressions of “grave concern” over variant strains were a factor in the division’s choice to begin online learning this week.

According to Chase, SHA staff told the division that, were it not for the variants spreading so effectively, they wouldn't have made such a "strong stance" to switch to online learning.

The school division is considering a return to in-person learning on April 12, the Monday after the week-long Easter break. But that depends on risk assessments and conversations it’s to have with the SHA, Chase said.

Prairie South plans to take the same approach. For now, only its Moose Jaw and Caronport schools are doing online learning.

Evan Radford, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Regina Leader-Post, The Leader-Post