Schools start reopening in Sask. today, some parents have concerns

·5 min read
Students in kindergarten to grade 12 will return to classes on Monday and Tuesday in Saskatchewan.  (James Arthur Gekiere/Belga Mag/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
Students in kindergarten to grade 12 will return to classes on Monday and Tuesday in Saskatchewan. (James Arthur Gekiere/Belga Mag/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

Adam Ogieglo, a family physician in Saskatoon, is facing the same difficult decision other Saskatchewan parents are: does he send his kids to school as COVID-19 case numbers rise, or not?

Schools in Saskatchewan are scheduled to reopen on Monday and Tuesday as COVID-19 cases surge in the province and the more contagious Omicron variant of the virus becomes more prominent.

On Friday, the province reported 735 new cases of the virus, the highest number of new cases in a day since the pandemic began.

[Omicron is] everywhere … it's really a matter of time before there's an exposure - Dr. Adam Ogieglo, family physician

"Our official [case] numbers are just a small fraction of what's actually out there," Ogieglo said.

"[Omicron is] everywhere … if there's a few hundred people in the mall it's likely to be there, if there's a few hundred kids in the school, it's likely to be there. It's really a matter of time before there's an exposure that happens."

As of Friday, there were 117 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant and 1,355 probable cases.

Submitted by Adam Ogieglo
Submitted by Adam Ogieglo

Ogieglo has four kids at home, two who are school-aged.

His four-year-old son won't be heading back to school yet, but he is planning to send his seven-year-old daughter, who is recently double-vaccinated, back after a week or two depending on how the pandemic progresses.

Ogieglo understands it may not be possible for everyone, but he suggests parents delay sending their kids back to school if they can for the next few weeks.

It's a consideration weighing on Barbara Cabrera's mind with a mingling of concerns.

Both her kids have received two doses of vaccine about six months ago and with waning effectiveness over time she's unsure how much protection it will offer them. On top of that, she says her daughter goes to one of the largest high schools in Regina, which she's worried could provide a hotspot for transmission.

[The provincial government] is acting like it's not happening here. - Barbara Cabrera, concerned parent

With finals coming up, though, it could complicate her daughter's situation even more.

If the Regina Public School system doesn't provide a delay — Cabrera hopes for at least one week to allow time for people ill from holiday celebrations to get tested — she plans to keep her kids home from school.

It's something she's able to do as a stay-at-home parent and acknowledges some families might find it difficult to accommodate a delay.

"I haven't seen case counts this high and that's concerning. Even though they say it might be milder, we don't know the ramifications of having COVID," Cabrera said.

She said it was "frustrating" that the government didn't implement some changes in response to increasing cases.

"They're acting like it's not happening here. I can appreciate that our numbers are not as high as other provinces, but that doesn't mean we're not being impacted."

Cabrera also says she's disheartened the government didn't prepare a contingency plan over the summer for future waves or further variants.

Hope for additional measures

Ogieglo published a post in the Safe Schools Saskatchewan Facebook group hoping to provide his own insight into how other parents ought to approach schools reopening, including factors to consider when deciding whether or not to send their kids to classrooms like how many people in the house are vaccinated.

Overall, Ogieglo is disappointed that the government hadn't learned its lesson in previous waves of the pandemic and is fearful of a repeat.

"We are heading into another wave and instead of taking a proactive approach we are waiting for the lagging indicator of hospitalizations and ICU numbers to catch up," he said.

He wants the government to provide better masking to schools, scale up ventilation but, because schools have been identified as reflections of the community, Ogieglo is asking for stronger community response.

Ogieglo isn't the only parent and physician advocating for changes to education in response to rising COVID-19 numbers.

In a Twitter post, Saskatchewan epidemiologist Dr. Alexander Wong said the provincial government "squandered" their time preparing for in-class learning and is calling for a plan to make schools safer.

"[Saskatchewan] parents and kids deserve better," he wrote.

Sask. only province opening schools as planned

Saskatchewan is the only province that will open schools on their originally scheduled date. Other provinces have either delayed their start date or shifted to online learning.

Neighbouring provinces—Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia—have delayed returns to school after the winter break until Jan.10 with some exceptions. For example, in British Columbia, children of essential workers or those with special needs will return on Jan. 3 or 4 as scheduled.

On Thursday, Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation president Patrick Maze called on the province to delay the classes for two days to allow more time to prepare for Omicron, following a press conference earlier in the day where officials said they were sticking to schedule.

Chief Medical Officer Saqib Shahab definitively said during Thursday's press conference that Saskatchewan is "rapidly" entering a fifth wave of the pandemic but maintained that the province will open schools on Monday.

"Our case numbers are not at a level where we need to plan anything different but we do expect to see more transmission in schools," he said.

Shahab said that the province needs to try to "protect in-class learning."

"We have always seen 15 to 20 per cent of cases transmit in school, the rest are household or community exposures. With Omicron, it will be no different—but the rate of transmission may increase either locally or more broadly."

Paul Merriman, the province's health minister, said 250,000 tests will be sent out to schools in early January with additional tests to be delivered if needed.

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