With the school year around the corner, the Saskatchewan government is recommending children under 12, unvaccinated teachers and unvaccinated support staff wear masks in common spaces such as hallways, washrooms, lunch rooms, libraries and school buses.
But mask use is not mandatory.
The guidance is part of the province's updated long-term precautions for dealing with COVID-19.
"Once students are seated in their classrooms, it is appropriate to remove masks," said a government news release Friday. "For outdoor activities such as recess or outdoor gym classes, there is no recommendation for students to mask."
To increase the reach of vaccines, anyone turning 12 in the current year will now be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, the release said. This means children born in 2009 can now be vaccinated, regardless of their birth date.
The release said the government will review its masking recommendations once vaccines are approved and available to children under 12.
When cases are identified, schools will be notified so they can inform students and parents.
"Contact tracing will continue to occur, and unvaccinated close contacts may be directed to self-isolate as deemed appropriate by public health," the release said.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) will offer school-based vaccination clinics similar to those offered at the end of the last school year.
Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teacher's Federation (STF), called the announcement "too little, too late."
Earlier this week the STF called for mandatory vaccines for teachers, eligible students and any other adults entering schools.
Maze said Friday's announcement puts school divisions in a tough spot, because it will hinder a division's ability to unilaterally make a decision to mandate masks or vaccinations.
"We have a small minority of people across Saskatchewan who are very against vaccines," he said. "This arms them with the ability to say, 'No, government said that it's just a suggestion. Government said that we don't have to, that we could just potentially choose to wear a mask instead.'"
Maze said he is concerned the government is sending mixed messages.
"It's kind of weak leadership, unfortunately. We would prefer that they kind of get off the fence two weeks before students are in the building and make a decision that is going to ensure the safety of our students."
Maze criticized the government for saying it's appropriate for students to take off masks while at their desks.
"It's not safe. We can't social distance in our classrooms. There's lots of classrooms where there's 34, 35, 36 students all jammed into a classroom," he said.
"I would argue that those students should not be taking off their masks. And I don't think that it's appropriate for government to say that that's safe, especially after government has already given the authority to school divisions to make those decisions."
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Rapid tests pilot program
Other long-term precautions in the province's plan include continuing contact tracing, testing and self isolation.
The release said the government is developing a "rapid test self-administration pilot to gauge the demand and uptake for self-administered rapid tests for families who may wish to screen for COVID-19 on an ongoing basis."
The rapid tests will be given to families through their schools.
The pilot program will be allocated to areas of the province where COVID transmission is highest.
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The province is also developing a targeted vaccination plan that will factor in guidance surrounding booster shots.
This includes deciding whether booster vaccines will be delivered annually, like the annual flu shot campaign, or as otherwise recommended.
"Considerations in the development of this plan will include population priority sequencing, mass-vaccination venues, and anticipated vaccination timelines dependent on the volume of vaccines received," the release said.