REGINA — Nearly all Saskatchewan school divisions will require masks this fall, despite the provincial government refusing to bring in a mandate.
The government left boards to decide whether to make masks mandatory in schools, unlike Ontario, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Alberta, which made them a rule in certain settings.
Most recently, Manitoba switched from strongly recommending to mandating mask use for Grades 4 to 12 in classes where physical distancing isn't possible.
Premier Scott Moe's office says 24 out of the province's 27 school divisions have confirmed they will implement mandatory masking policies when classes resume on Sept. 8.
The government's advice for divisions opting for masks is they should be worn by students in grades 4 to 12 in busy areas such as hallways and on buses. It also says students in grades 9 to 12 students may wear them in classrooms when physical distancing can't be achieved.
Moe's press secretary, Jim Billington, says at this point that advice isn't changing.
"We will continue to take the advice of our public health officials and work with school divisions as we monitor the return to school, including the number of students in schools and the level of community transmission," he said in a statement.
Saskatchewan's Ministry of Education says, as of Wednesday, Christ the Teacher Catholic Schools, Northern Lights School Division and Sun West School Division were the three districts still considering mask policies.
"We are not going about this thinking that in every situation will the mask be mandatory," says Sun West's director of education, Randy Emmerson.
"We're hoping that with staggered start times, and using varied entrances and with arrangements of classrooms and with front-facing instruction ... we will be able to create those conditions upon which the masks will not need to be worn."
He says students will be asked to wear masks when they can't maintain physical distancing as outlined in the provincial guidelines, but the face coverings are only one measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The division has 42 schools, Emmerson says, serving rural communities of different sizes and with schools ranging from pre-kindergarten to Grade 12, and Grade 9 to Grade 12.
"We're prepared to have them, we haven't blanket across the division said that they will be mandatory. What we are saying is in the conditions, as set out in the guidelines, they are to be used," he said.
Emmerson says feedback from parents about masking has also been varied.
"Right from, 'Please don't make our children wear masks, it'll be ineffective' ... to, 'We won't be sending our children to school unless you have a masking-mandatory statement.'"
Northern Lights School Division, which operates schools in the province's far north, says in its back-to-school plan dated Aug. 1 that personal protective equipment isn't required except when taking care of sick students.
At a meeting later this week, the board is to discuss making masks mandatory, education director Jason Young said, adding decisions are made in consultation with the region's public health officer.
He says around 60,000 masks have been ordered and the division plans to have more than 200,000 for its schools, which usually have around 4,200 students.
Christ the Teacher Catholic Schools, which have students from Yorkton, Theodore and Melville, says in its plan from early August that masks aren't required except when taking care of ill students.
As of Thursday, health officials in Saskatchewan reported four new COVID-19 cases. The Ministry of Health says 99 of the 149 active infections are in Hutterite colonies.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 20, 2020.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press