Disinfectant sprayers, COVID-19 consultants: Reopening in a pandemic costs Sask. school divisions up to $1M

Buying disinfectant sprayers and hiring COVID-19 hygiene consultants are among the expenses that have brought the cost of reopening for Saskatchewan school divisions as high as $1 million.

Schools have also had to purchase masks, gowns, cleaning equipment and signage to prepare for the return of students on Sept. 8.

Joel Lloyd, the chief financial officer for Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools (GSCS), said COVID-19 changes have cost the school division $1 million in resources so far.

"That gets us to the first month of school," Lloyd said, adding that they will require more funding for any ongoing costs.

Water fountains have been replaced with water bottle filling stations. New gym equipment and other technologies are being purchased.

"We're trying to keep cohorts together and ensuring those cohorts have access to technology and we're not sharing it as much as we used to," said Lloyd.

"That requires additional units as well as we're looking at our resources and textbooks. It used to be a one to three ratio. Looking at, what does that look like now?"

Lloyd said the school division is currently using money it saved by not paying for student transportation and substitute teacher pay in the past six months, when schools were closed due to the pandemic.

Longer-term, he said the school will need additional funding to hire more support staff such as speech pathologists, educational psychologists and occupational therapists to work with immunocompromised students or students that choose to do distance learning.

We can't guess at how to return to school in the middle of a pandemic. - Twylla West, Regina Catholic Schools

On Aug. 15, the Saskatchewan government allocated $40 million from an existing COVID-19 fund to assist schools with reopening, after its initial plan drew criticism from some parents and doctors, including the Saskatchewan Medical Association.

GSCS has applied for a portion of that provincial funding to increase staffing.

As of last Thursday, Saskatoon Public Schools had spent $730,000 on COVID-19 related "operational items" in preparation for school to begin.

"This includes face masks, floor decals, gloves, hand sanitizer, plexiglass shields, signage, water bottle filling stations, and face shields," said the school district in an emailed response.

Regina Catholic Schools (RCS) had not provided its COVID-19 preparation costs before this story was published.

RCS communications and media co-ordinator Twylla West said the cost of signage and masks alone is in the tens of thousands of dollars.

"The cost is definitely high. We'd rather pay in dollars than in people's health or people's lives, though, for sure," West said.

RCS has also applied to the provincial government for some of the $40 million announced.

One of the tools the school division has purchased is a sprayer that uses a disinfectant called vital oxide to make cleaning faster.

"It means that disinfecting one of our classrooms takes two to three minutes instead of — I am sure you can imagine how long it would take to use bleach and water or something," West said.

Regina Catholic Schools/Facebook
Regina Catholic Schools/Facebook

RCS has also hired a consultant group, Cygnus Group, to provide guidance on infection control and hygiene precautions.

"We knew that we needed somebody who knew more than we did about infectious diseases," said West.

"I don't Google something if something's wrong with my kid, I take him to the doctor and similar to that, we can't guess at how to return to school in the middle of a pandemic."

Cygnus Group founder Joan Pratchler is a former school administrator at RCS, and current nurse and nurse educator.

She said the group also includes experts on infection control and facilities management.

Cygnus was created in response to the pandemic and has advised RCS on a range of topics including changes to HR requirements, effective disinfectant use, cohorting students and mental health supports.

"[We help provide] some really good resources at a time when people are desperate for them because there is so much noise on the internet," Pratchler said.

"What is right, what is true, what isn't."

She said school divisions can call and ask questions such as whether or not they can use a fan in the classroom.

The federal government has also committed $74.9 million to Saskatchewan to help school divisions prepare for the return to class.

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