REGINA — Saskatchewan says it will not require children to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test to attend school or extracurricular activities — unless there are unusual circumstances.
Health Minister Paul Merriman says the Saskatchewan Party government's focus is to keep kids in classrooms and including them in the province's vaccine passport program is off the table.
"They have been in and out of classrooms, and it's been very challenging for the students and the teachers," Merriman said. "We want to try to make it as normal as possible ... for those young children to learn, but also being diligent about the virus."
Health Canada on Friday approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children between five and 11. Provinces could begin offering doses as early as next week.
On Monday, Saskatchewan is to release details about how it plans to vaccinate about 115,000 kids in that age group. The province expects to receive 112,000 initial doses.
This weekend, students attending a volleyball tournament at Swift Current Comprehensive High School will still have to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to participate.
The Chinook School Division doesn't have a vaccine mandate, but a policy was set by the area's medical health officer because the school has an active COVID-19 outbreak, said a division spokeswoman.
"There could be special situations where, if there's an outbreak in a school, other provisions may apply," added Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab.
Some organizations are calling for stricter measures.
In August, the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation asked the government to mandate vaccines for anyone going into schools — including teachers, staff and students. In October, the province's 21 medical health officers sent a letter to Merriman recommending children 12 and older show proof of vaccination for in-class learning and extracurricular activities.
"You have a right to an education, but not a right to attend school," said federation president Patrick Maze. "We will still give you an education. But if you're choosing to be unvaccinated, then we may offer that education online because you're putting people at risk."
Several school divisions have brought in vaccine mandates for staff, but the province said the situation is different for students.
"I justify it because the staff and teachers are employees of the school divisions. The students are provincial students," said Education Minister Dustin Duncan. "They are minors and they have a right to an education."
Shahab said he wants to avoid a situation in which unvaccinated children who are eligible for a shot cannot attend in-class learning or other activities.
"It is not their fault that their parents chose not to get them vaccinated," he said.
Duncan said there are 27,000 school-aged children who remain unvaccinated.
Health and education officials are working to set up clinics at schools. Duncan said the government is also working on a plan to ensure anti-vaccination protesters don't turn up at schools, as they have at hospitals.
The province currently requires proof of vaccination or a negative test for anyone 12 and older to gain entry into non-essential places, including restaurants, theatres, gyms and event venues.
Under the public health order, parents can vouch for those under 18. Shahab said that will not change.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2021.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press