Saskatchewan Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab says he supports a request sent by the education minister to school board chairs, asking them not to prohibit students who are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, but haven't had the shots, from taking part in extracurricular activities.
In a letter sent to all school division board chairs in the province on Wednesday, Dustin Duncan wrote that under the Education Act, all students should be given the opportunity to fully participate in athletic and arts events, provided they are asymptomatic and not under an isolation order because they have COVID-19 or are a close contact of a positive case.
Dr. Shahab says students shouldn't be penalized if their parents choose not to vaccinate them.
"We want to work towards improving vaccine uptake, continue to answer all questions that come up around hesitancy, but not have a situation where unvaccinated children cannot attend in-class learning or other activities that are so important for them," Shahab said during Thursday's COVID-19 briefing.
"It is not their fault that their parents chose not to get them vaccinated."
But Shahab says he still wants more people to get the shot and insists vaccination is the only way out of the pandemic.
Concern about vaccination policy: minister
Duncan says he was contacted by parents in his constituency of Weyburn who were concerned about the proof of vaccination policy at a girls' provincial volleyball championship, set to take place at Swift Current Comprehensive High School this Friday and Saturday.
The policy says participants and attendees of extracurricular activities or events must provide proof of vaccination or a negative test result within 72 hours.
It was implemented by the local medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority because the school is currently in COVID-19 outbreak status, according to Joanne Booth, communications co-ordinator of the Chinook School Division.
"Teams and school divisions are asked to ensure their players and coaches adhere to the public health order and guidelines," Booth wrote in an email to CBC News.
"These measures were implemented by the MHO to keep everyone safe, while allowing activities to continue despite the positive cases and outbreak status."
The health authority also declared Weyburn Comprehensive School a COVID-19 outbreak site on Nov. 13.
The health authority says outbreaks remain listed until officially declared over by a medical health officer.
Duncan says his Wednesday letter was a followup to one sent Monday by the deputy minister of health to directors of education.
The earlier letter said schools and school operations in Saskatchewan, both curricular and extracurricular, are not considered subject to proof of vaccination or negative test requirements under the current public health order.
"We've been very clear that students should be able to participate for in-class learning and in-school activities without being mandated or required to have a vaccination," the education minister told reporters on Thursday.
"What I was hearing coming out of this [Swift Current volleyball] event, which was a school-based event, was inconsistent with that expectation and that direction from the government, and certainly would've been inconsistent with what those same players would've been experiencing in the regionals to get to the championship."
Minister's move 'irresponsible': epidemiologist
Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan, says Duncan's decision is "irresponsible," given the province's COVID-19 situation.
"For a minister of education at this point in time, in a province that has had the worst fourth wave, with the most number of deaths per capita still in this province, to send that kind of advice, I think is irresponsible," Muhajarine said.
Carla Beck, the education critic for the Opposition NDP, says school boards should have the ability to make their own decisions regarding vaccination requirements.
During question period at the legislature Thursday, Beck accused Duncan of letting school boards "do all the work" when it comes to public health measures in schools, and then overriding their autonomy when "anti-vaxxers call his office."
When Duncan then asked Beck if she supports mandatory vaccines for students, she said "no."