Halfway through the first month of school, as many as one in five people testing positive for COVID-19 in Saskatchewan are children aged zero to 11.
The province's four biggest school divisions — Regina Public Schools, Regina Catholic Schools, Saskatoon Public Schools, and Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools — have reported dozens of COVID cases combined since the first week of classes.
The divisions are notified of cases by the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA). The province's website has a list of COVID-19 cases in schools, but it hasn't been updated past Monday.
Saskatoon Public Schools told CBC News that it had 16 positive cases from Sept. 12 to 15. Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools also reported 12 cases from Sept. 12 to 14. Meanwhile, Regina Public Schools had eight from Sept. 12 to 14. Regina Catholic Schools said it hasn't been notified of any cases past Sunday, but has had 10 cases so far this year.
Of Saskatchewan's 475 new COVID cases reported on Wednesday, 104 of them are among children aged zero to 11, who are not eligible to be vaccinated. That's just under 22 per cent of all cases.
Provincewide approach to fighting COVID needed: Sask. Health Authority
Cory Neudorf, the interim senior medical health officer for SHA, said the growing number of children getting infected is "concerning, although not surprising."
"What we've been seeing as the fourth wave of COVID has been hitting across the country, we're predominantly seeing this as an outbreak of the unvaccinated," Neudorf said. "So we are expecting to see a larger proportion of cases being in that younger age group now."
Neudorf said the provincial government is "overdue" to lead a co-ordinated approach to addressing the rise in cases.
He said mandatory masking for all age groups and mandatory vaccinations for school staff and eligible students could help protect children in schools.
"The SHA will continue to provide our advice as to what we think medically needs to happen to control this pandemic. Those concerns are passed on to the government and then it's up to the government to decide how to act," he said.
"It's always more effective if we can get a co-ordinated provincewide response. In the absence of that, all we can do is try to give local advice back to individual school divisions."
The Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation is also calling for a provincewide public health order for masks and vaccine mandates in schools.
Patrick Maze, president of the union, slammed the provincial government for leaving it up to individual school divisions to implement safety measures.
"The big frustration here is that we should have learned a lot through the last year and a half of dealing with COVID," Maze said. "Unfortunately, our government seems to have regressed to just saying 'we don't want anything to do with it and we're just going to pass it off to other levels to deal with it.'"
Masks aren't mandatory at every school in the province.
The Regina and Saskatoon public and Catholic school divisions are among those mandating indoor mask use in elementary and high schools. Prairie Spirit Schools also recently announced a mask mandate, effective this week.
New mandatory self-isolation order has exemptions for kids who are close contacts
The province released a new public health order last week requiring anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 to self-isolate for 10 days after receiving a positive test result.
The order says unvaccinated kids who are close contacts to a positive case of COVID-19 don't have to self-isolate if the exposure took place at school, but they do have to self-isolate if the exposure happened outside of school.
Maze said this exemption "makes no sense."
"Where you were exposed to COVID really shouldn't determine what the next steps are. If you're exposed to COVID, you should be forced to isolate until we're certain that you're safe," he said.
"There's too many conflicting rules and not a lot of logic to the rules that have been put out. From the Teachers' Federation point of view, we'd like to keep things more simple and just say that if you're exposed, you are required to isolate, similar to last year."