REGINA — Saskatchewan's education minister said he expects the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a need for more substitute teachers but funding for those staff isn't an immediate priority.
On Tuesday, as thousands of students were back in school for the first time in almost six months, Gord Wyant said officials don't yet know what the impact will be.
"We do anticipate that there will be a demand on substitute teachers, an increased demand over what likely is in the budgets of school divisions," Wyant told a news conference.
"But we don't know what that number's going to be."
At the elementary school in Indian Head, a town east of Regina, all students started the year with online learning because a staff member tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
The Prairie Valley School Division said other staff at the school have to isolate for 14 days and the plan is to start in-person classes next week.
Wyant said COVID-19 cases in schools are inevitable and divisions have processes in place to respond when there are infections.
Terri Leniuk sent her 14-year-old daughter to her first day of high school in Regina on Tuesday. The mother said her daughter felt apprehensive about going, and the regular back-to-school excitement was missing because of all the changes to routines.
"We were nervous, we didn't really know what to expect," Leniuk said.
"Am I planning on pulling her out if we have a case there or two? No. We need to give this some time and see how it goes."
On Tuesday, the government outlined how it would spend about $40 million in provincial funding to help divisions safely reopen schools, and that's on top of $10 million boards can spend to cover pandemic-related costs from their own savings.
Wyant said priority for funding was given to sanitization supplies and helping immunocompromised students. Some staff are also to be hired — 190 custodial staff, 150 teachers to assist those students with weaker immune systems and 102 staff to help with distance learning.
Elya Lam, one of the mothers behind a community group pressing the province to bring in tighter safety measures in schools, said her family chose online learning for her kids going into Grade 2 and kindergarten because they have some immunocompromised relatives.
"We know that is not an option for a lot of families."
In terms of support, Wyant said the province has yet to receive $75 million in federal money pledged to safely reopen schools. He added it will be accepting more funding requests from school divisions.
Money for supplies like yoga mats and pencil cases, as well as paying for substitute teachers, were things that didn't make the cut this time around, Wyant said.
Opposition NDP education critic Carla Beck said the Saskatchewan Party government should have announced the teacher positions earlier and it's foreseeable that divisions will need more money to pay for substitutes.
"I've heard from a number of substitute teachers that they're fully booked for the first week," she said.
For many parents taking first day of school photos, their children's smiles were shielded by masks, as nearly all school divisions are requiring them to be worn in certain circumstances, such as on buses.
Six million masks were ordered by the province and distributed to school divisions.
Stacey Wempe is part of a group of parents behind an effort against mandatory masks in the South East Cornerstone Public School Division, which requires they be worn by grade 9 to 12 students when staying far enough apart isn't possible and they are outside their assigned cohorts.
As of Tuesday afternoon, an online petition against masks in the division had more than 2,000 signatures.
Wempe said her daughter starts Grade 12 at Estevan Comprehensive School on Wednesday and has been informed that if she doesn't wear a mask, she will be sent home.
Parents weren't involved in deciding the mask policy, said Wempe, and she doesn't understand the rationale behind it when the rate of transmission of COVID-19 remains low in Saskatchewan.
The province reported seven new COVID-19 cases and 58 active infections Tuesday.
"All we want actually is the dialogue with the school division. That's all we really want," Wempe said. "They're not giving us choices here. We have a right to have our own say and make our own decisions."
Wyant says when it comes to masks, parents should follow the rules of their school divisions and any exemption to wearing one should be granted in "exceptional" circumstances.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2020
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press