No mask mandate, low vaccination rates in Sask. concerning for students: experts

·4 min read
Saskatchewan won't require schools mask up, leaving the decision to school boards, and concerning experts.  (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
Saskatchewan won't require schools mask up, leaving the decision to school boards, and concerning experts. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

Saskatchewan's government is not mandating masks in schools, despite only about half (52 per cent) of people aged 12 to 17 being vaccinated with two doses as of Monday.

In Manitoba, most teachers will have to be fully vaccinated and masks will be required in schools. B.C. announced on Tuesday that all staff and students will be required to wear masks in indoor spaces — including schools — though vaccines are not required.

The Alberta government has not mandated masks, but school divisions in both Calgary and Edmonton have implemented mask requirements in schools.

Saskatchewan's four largest school boards, in Regina and Saskatoon, have mandated masks in elementary schools, but not in high schools. Others, like the Prince Albert and Northern Lights School division, are requiring masks in all schools.

Nearly 185,000 students were enrolled at Saskatchewan schools and programs as of September 2020, according to a government list of active schools.

About 85,000 of them are in grades 7 to 12 — aged 11 to 18 — and either are eligible for vaccination or could be if they were born in 2009 or later. Only about 28,500 of those are in grades 7 and 8, which contribute to the nearly 115,000 kids in elementary school.

About 10,000 students enrolled in the province were home-schooled or taught online. Provincial data didn't show which age groups those students were in.

'Riskier' environments

Dr. Dennis Kendel, a health policy consultant, is disappointed that the government didn't "step up to the plate" and chose to leave masking mandates to individual school boards. He said if he were a parent he'd be "quite concerned."

Jen Quesnel/CBC
Jen Quesnel/CBC

Kendel said masking should be a minimum requirement in schools, as in B.C.

"When it comes to something as simple as masking, because it's not an onerous thing to require, I just cannot understand why any school division would not mandate masking," Kendel said.

"It should have been done by the provincial government. Our government failed to accept its responsibility."

Kendel said the delta variant is also worrisome. He hopes that if schools see a rise in cases, the government will step in.

In an email, the provincial ministries of health and education did not answer if or when they would intervene if there were a rise in cases, but reiterated that school divisions are working with local medical health officers to respond to public health risks in schools.

Dr. Susy Hota, the medical director of infection prevention and control at the University Health Network in Toronto, commended those student who are vaccinated, but said it's not enough.

"In the younger age groups there isn't even that possibility [of vaccination] ... so they're completely susceptible to getting infections if they get introduced into that environment," she said.

She said that means other measures need to be taken, like masking or vaccinating those around kids, to prevent transmission to them.

"We saw what happened in the absence of vaccination in previous waves of COVID-19 and in areas where the virus was circulating quite efficiently, it gets into schools."

Craig Chivers/CBC
Craig Chivers/CBC

The delta variant of the virus presents new hurdles. Hota said achieving potential herd immunity means meeting a threshold of 90 per cent or more of the population vaccinated.

While she said schools aren't a dangerous environment, they are a "riskier environment," she said.

It's tough to predict how kids will fare this year, given how COVID-19 variants have arisen and vaccines have been developed since last year, Hota said.

School board agrees with government decision

Saskatchewan School Board Association president Shawn Davidson supports the government's decision and said he "absolutely" believes schools are safe for children to attend.

"Having the local decision-makers being able to work with their local health officials to come up with the most appropriate protocols for their communities has served our province very well through the pandemic," he said.

Saskatchewan Minister of Education Dustin Duncan defended the government's decision to allow school divisions to dictate their requirements. He said some municipalities may want to require masks, where others may not need to "wear masks in all situations."

In an email, the provincial health and education ministries said they are developing a rapid test self-administration pilot to determine if families would like to screen for COVID-19 in their children.

While they said they plan to offer school-based vaccination clinics, they did not specify when those would take place.

The Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation called the government's "encouragement" for students and teachers to get vaccinated "a good place to start," but said it wasn't enough.

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