REGINA — Jim Clifford kept his two children home from school this week despite Saskatchewan being the only province in Canada not to extend the holiday break for students in the face of surging COVID-19 cases driven mainly by the Omicron variant.
Clifford, who has a seven-year-old in Grade 2 and a five-year-old in kindergarten, said the decision was tough, but he wanted them to have their second dose of vaccine before sending them back.
"They're young enough that missing a week isn't going to be detrimental and they get a week of antibodies," Clifford said in a phone interview from his home in Saskatoon.
His kindergartner can't sit still for online classes and his seven-year-old son doesn't enjoy learning virtually, so the family is treating the extra time off as an extended vacation with less TV, as well as French and reading lessons peppered throughout.
Clifford said part of the decision was based on what every other province has done — delay the post-holiday return to schools.
"We have a government here that seems to be doing absolutely nothing, and that's also really concerning," Clifford said.
"You wonder what's the scientific evidence that's being put in front of (Ontario Premier) Doug Ford to make these decisions, and how is it different than what's being put forth to our cabinet?"
The Saskatchewan Party government said it's resuming in-class learning because it's important for children’s mental health and development. The province is encouraging students and staff to take rapid tests before attending school.
More than 1.4 million tests have been distributed through elementary schools and an additional 250,000 tests were recently sent to schools, said a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education. Staff have access to disposable medical grade surgical masks and millions of dollars have been allocated for air purification upgrades at schools, she added.
Last week, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said case numbers are not at a level where schools need to close.
"We have always seen 15 to 20 per cent of cases transmit in schools. The rest are household and community exposures. With Omicron it's nothing different, but rate of transmission may increase," Shahab said.
Cases are climbing after a short-lived decline in November following the province's fourth wave, which was fuelled by the Delta variant and mainly affected the unvaccinated.
On Tuesday, Saskatchewan reported 1,954 new cases of COVID-19 over a four-day period for a total of 4,062 active cases. The Ministry of Health said the Omicron variant was behind 95 per cent of new cases.
In September, as the fourth wave intensified and well before Omicron was discovered, Shahab warned residents of a winter of misery if cases weren't pushed down.
"That winter of misery is here," Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist based in Saskatoon, said Tuesday as he suggested Saskatchewan is entering its fifth wave.
"We will be seeing numbers that we have not seen before in daily new cases in Saskatchewan. We are no different really than any other province," Muhajarine said.
He said the government's decision to keep schools open is "a really big risk" and added that measures need to be placed on gathering sizes and more education provided an how to use rapid tests.
Despite cases rising, Clifford plans to send his kids back to school next week.
"If we're not going to do any of the things that would make it safer, that would help flatten the curve, then it's hard to see how shutting the schools in and of itself is going to solve the problem if the gyms and bars and nightclubs are still open," he said.
"I don't think we've made the better decision than parents who have kids in schools. We're all in an impossible situation."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2022.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press