The federal government has committed nearly $75 million to Saskatchewan to help school divisions prepare for the return to class. There are many ways that money could be spent, but experts say high-quality air ventilation should be a top priority.
"The ventilation is my big worry. It won't take away all the risk, but it will reduce the risk significantly when it comes to cold Saskatchewan winters," said Dr. Anne Huang, a former Saskatchewan deputy medical health officer.
The federal funds are part of a $2 billion pledge to provinces and territories for the safe reopening of schools. A portion of the money will be given out this fall, with the rest expected in 2021.
The Saskatchewan government said the money will be added to a pool of $40 million taken from the COVID-19 contingency fund, and $40 million in school division savings from 2019-20.
"With the federal government's contribution, there is now up to $150 million available to our education sector for costs associated with a safe return to school," said provincial Education Minister Gordon Wyant in a statement.
The provincial government said the money will be available throughout the school year. School divisions must apply for the funding.
"An area that obviously will see significant cost relates to the work that needs to be done to improve the ventilation and filtration of the school, heating and air conditioning systems. And so the highest efficiency filters should be used and that will cost money," Huang said.
Huang says schools need to bring in as much outside air as possible.
"But there is that trade off with the loss of heating and energy, particularly when it comes to winter. So I think the money needs to be used to support those anticipated heating costs because of the need to improve ventilation for the schools," she said.
Huang says the money should also be used on portable air cleaners with the proper filters appropriate for the size of the rooms that will be used for isolating students.
"If we can ensure that wherever the space will be used for that purpose, that there's at least some sort of increased capacity to clean the air... that, I think, would be very practical."
Face masks and subsidies
Huang says that she often sees masks that don't provide the necessary protection. She says schools should acquire masks that let children and staff breathe, but also absorb droplets.
"What we need to do is make sure everyone has access to a well fitted, well-made cloth face mask. The first thing that this pot of money could be used toward is to procure Saskatchewan-made face masks that are made to the latest evidence-based recommendations," Huang said.
"Mainly we are getting the disease and passing along to people when we speak, when we cough, sneeze or sing or laugh."
Huang also suggests school divisions consider using the funds to provide a minimum wage subsidy for families that must isolate and stay home from work if a child or school staff member tests positive for COVID-19.
"That would take away the worry of people avoiding getting testing for the fear of losing their livelihood. I think that's crucially important since we've seen COVID-19 impact minority communities and low-income families more severely," Huang said.
Like Huang, Steven Lewis, a health policy consultant from Saskatoon, is also concerned with ventilation as Saskatchewan students head back to school. But he wonders if they should head back at all.
"In a sense, I'm not sure that there is much you can do to modify the schools themselves," Lewis said.
"I think the bigger issue is literally the policy. Should you open the schools?"
Lewis says children are not at high risk of spreading COVID-19 to each other. And he says children getting schooling is very important. But if school divisions and parents are concerned about safeguarding against the virus, he believes the ultimate answer is isolation.