Some Saskatchewan parents say they have mixed feelings as students are set to go back to regular in-class learning this fall.
With all COVID-19 restrictions lifted in the province as of July 11, "the 2021-22 school year will proceed as during pre-pandemic years," the province said in its 2021-22 Safe Schools Plan document, which was posted on the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation website.
"Public health officials have determined that it is safe for schools to resume traditional in-class learning," meaning masking and physical distancing won't be required when classes resume in the fall, the document said.
But parent Dawn Pratt said she's still concerned, since her kids, ages eight and 10, still can't get a COVID-19 vaccine.
"None of the children will probably be vaccinated in the schools either," she said, since no vaccine has yet been approved in Canada for use with children under 12.
"It will be a big concern when I see them going back to school," said Pratt, a chemist and educational consultant from the Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation in Saskatchewan.
The government of Saskatchewan said high community uptake of COVID-19 is key to protecting children who can't get one. If parents, friends, families and educators are vaccinated, children are indirectly protected, the province says.
Pratt said while she's OK with masking requirements being lifted at schools, she'd like to see the increased hand-washing practices that became common during the pandemic continue — and hopes people will stay home when they're sick.
"Those are the things I think would be really important to reducing the spread of germs," she said.
May be too early to make plans: pediatrician
Dr. Ayisha Kurji said it's reassuring that Saskatchewan's COVID-19 case counts are low right now, but warns kids are still at risk. The Saskatoon pediatrician is advising her patients and her own family to follow guidelines consistent with advice from Public Health Canada and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
"If we're at home with people who we know where both of the adults are vaccinated, then we are taking off our masks. Keeping our bubble as small as we can," Kurji said. "We are definitely still being really cautious."
Kurji said she has mixed feelings about schools returning to normal. While it's important to keep them as close to normal as possible, she thinks it's a bit early to make decisions about precautions. She notes young kids can't be vaccinated and the effect of more contagious coronavirus variants is still uncertain.
"We also don't know yet what's going to happen now that our entire province is open," Kurji said. "It's important that we have conversations with our kids … to help them understand that we don't know yet what it's going to look like and that things might change."
But "the good thing that I saw in the plan is that this is such a change based on risk, based on epidemiology," she said.
Kurji said she'll be keeping an eye on case numbers and who is getting seriously ill from COVID-19, which currently is largely those who are unvaccinated.
If a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available for children under 12, it will be a completely different ball game, Kurji said, with children being far better protected.
For now, people need to take measures to protect children, she said, the same way people took measures like physical distancing to protect the elderly at the start of the pandemic.
Father happy kindergarten student can meet others
Ed Mendez is a father of two, including five-year-old Diego, who is preparing to enter kindergarten.
That's "both exciting and nerve-racking all at the same time," Mendez said. "I cannot wait for my kid to meet other kids and I can't wait to meet other parents.… It's been a long year and a half."
Mendez said he has been feeling OK about restrictions being lifted, adding that children can be quite resilient. He's feeling better seeing lower case numbers and knowing that COVID-19 may have gone through his household early in the pandemic.
Even still, he's taking it week-by-week.
"If the numbers start … going in the opposite direction, then I think I will start to be a little bit more nervous. But I'm sure that the schools will come up with plans if that is the case. So right now, I'm feeling pretty groovy."
Mendez said it's been different getting Diego ready for kindergarten during the pandemic, but his son has been working on his alphabet and understands a fair bit about the pandemic.
"The other day my father-in-law had told me that he got his second vaccine, and Diego was just running around … going 'Yeah!'" said Mendez.
"He was so pumped.… Like, wow — this kid understands."
Mendez said he'll feel more comfortable when there is a COVID-19 vaccine for children under 12, and he wouldn't hesitate to have his children vaccinated.
There are already routine immunization schedules for other illnesses that apply to school-aged children in Saskatchewan, Mendez notes, and he says he wouldn't mind seeing one more added.