Unlike all other provinces, in-class learning will continue in Saskatchewan amid surging COVID-19 cases.
Education Minister Dustin Duncan said at a news conference Wednesday that there will be an increase of COVID-19 cases in schools and disruptions in individual classes, but that it's important to keep schools open.
"We know that in-class learning is critically important to students' overall mental and physical health and development," Duncan said.
"That is why the government of Saskatchewan is supporting all students and staff in finding ways to reduce risk while we learn to live with COVID in our everyday lives."
He said these ways include continued masking, increased sanitation, cohorting, and encouraging all students and staff who are sick to stay home.
Duncan said schools across the province will have access to an additional 250,000 rapid tests and that families must make rapid testing a part of their weekly routine.
Process for notifying close contacts
Schools are updating their process for notifying close contacts of cases, the province said in a news release.
Staff and students must report their positive COVID test results — whether from a rapid test or the more formal PCR test — to the school office.
The school will then send a notification to parents and school bus cohorts that may be considered close contacts.
Fully vaccinated students and staff who are close contacts will self-monitor, but can attend school and other activities if they're asymptomatic.
Meanwhile, fully vaccinated students and staff who test positive have to self-isolate for five days.
The government is now defining outbreaks in schools as a cluster of three or more cases — up from two — in a class or cohort of students, and said outbreaks will continue to be investigated by public health officials who may advise on additional measures.
NDP slams government's response
The Opposition NDP said it expected the Saskatchewan government to outline a back-to-school plan.
"Everyone agrees that it is in the best interest of students to have them in school. However, a 'wait and see' strategy that risks their safety will not accomplish that," said education critic Carla Beck in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
"If you know a hurricane is coming, you don't wait for the storm to hit to board up your windows. The longer you wait and sit on your hands, the fewer options you leave for school divisions and parents, eventually forcing classes online when you no longer have the staffing capacity in schools."
Beck said Duncan had no plan for staffing and promised no additional PPE, ventilation upgrades, funding or other measures applied elsewhere in Canada.
Meanwhile, the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation (STF) is calling on the government to provide all staff and students with N95 masks, mandate masks and proof of vaccination policies for all activities, including extracurricular, and to update the definition of fully vaccinated to include booster shots, among other protections.
"While it is unfortunate that we lost that opportunity to implement these measures before students returned, doing so now would still help ensure in-person learning continues," union president Patrick Maze said at a news conference.
Maze said that while the STF doesn't have access to teacher absentee data, anecdotally he's heard about many instances of teachers unable to go to work because they tested positive for COVID on a rapid test.
Maze said one school indicated they were down eight staff members, while another indicated that they were down 16 staff members. The former was only provided with two substitute teachers, according to Maze.
He said to address staff shortages, multiple student cohorts may be moved into a single classroom, or principals and learning assistance teachers may have to cover classes, which causes both a safety challenge in the face of the highly contagious Omicron variant, and "everybody's academic instruction is also getting impacted."
"And then you just say, 'Well, what are we trying to do here? Is it just a large babysitting service?'"