Patrick Maze the President of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation is questioning the government’s move to change COVID-19 isolation and reporting protocols within the school system.
“It is difficult to know how safe the learning environment is for students. Parents are going to have a difficult time going forward. It also makes it difficult for school staff, teachers included, to make a risk assessment on how safe their work environment is.”
Students within the school system are no longer required to self isolate if they are a COVID-19 close contact, the requirement to report positive COVID test results to the school has also been removed. A move Maze says will cause anxiety and worry among staff and students – especially those who are immunocompromised.
“This really puts those with family members who are immunocompromised or those who are immunocompromised themselves at risk. It makes it difficult to know whether they have been exposed or not. It puts them in a constant state of alarm.”
Absentee rates among staff and students in schools across the province have been high. The province has a shortage of substitute teachers and support staff. The Omicron surge has compounded that problem and is forcing many teachers to take on a much higher workload, in some cases covering multiple classes where the usual staff is out due to COVID-19 related illness.
“This has made an already difficult situation into an even more difficult one. A teacher within the system shared a story with me recently of needing to take bereavement leave for a relative that had passed away – and they felt they couldn’t because staffing shortages were so significant.”
Maze speculated that the government may have had their intentions in the right place by shortening the isolation period for staff with illness or a COVID positive exposure, but added that this reduced measure might simply add to the further spread of Omicron within the schools.
“To my knowledge there are very few N95 masks available. It’s reasonable to assume there will be spread within our schools. There was spread prior to these changes being enacted, and these changes really take away our ability to know who has it and who is a close contact. It’s hard to asses the situation from everyone’s point of view. ”
In recent months the choices of Premier Scott Moe, and the direction of Chief Medical Health Officer Saquib Shahab have seemed to be at odds, something Maze says is giving Saskatchewan residents a mixed message.
“Dr. Shahab is saying now is not the time to reduce restrictions, that we need to be vigilant and we need to be lowering our contacts and really only attending work and attending school. Yet our Government is reducing restrictions, which will potentially facilitate the spread. It’s frustrating to hear the mixed messages and see Dr.Shahab sitting right beside government officials and they are saying the exact opposite thing.”
Despite the reduction of isolation requirements and disclosure policies by the government – school divisions could still ask parents to disclose COVID positive cases to administration says Maze. The conflict comes down to work load for school administrators and the lack anything requiring parents to do so.
“Divisions do have the ability to enact tighter measures than what the province is requesting. The problem is – it is a lot of work for in school administrators to do the contact tracing and be sending out letters to let parents know their child has been exposed. It also isn’t required now that parents respond and let divisions know. It can be requested, but there isn’t anything compelling parents to do so. It’s all on the honor system.”
Parents are sharing the concerns echoed by the Saskatchewan Teachers’ federation.
Theresa Whiteman is a member of the Safe Schools Saskatchewan Facebook group. A group with over 12,000 concerned parents. The group was set up to promote the safe return to school after the initial lockdowns in 2020. Over the last two years the group has grown to address broader discussions around safe, positive schools including the health and welfare of our communities. As a parent – she is concerned.
“I think the updated public health order is only going to make schools less safe. Cases, hospitalizations, ICU numbers and deaths have all increased this week, and those were supposed to be our key indicators for Omicron.”
Whiteman’s son lives with disabilities and the family made the decision to keep him home after the Christmas break.
“Today’s announcements give me zero confidence in sending him back in person until cases have dropped significantly. I feel like the perspective of parents has been lost in all this.”
Parents who may be concerned about the safety of their child within the frame of these new guidelines have options says Maze, suggesting concerned parents reach out to their MLA and share concerns about the safety of their children in the face of these changes.
“The most concerning part of this are the mixed messages being sent out to parents and teachers from Dr.Shahab and the provincial government. These mixed messages cause the public to be unsure of what to do. During a pandemic people need specific instructions and they need to know how to keep themselves safe. They need to know who is positive and who isn’t and they need the ability to make decisions on their own health based on the information that they have. If they don’t have information going forward – it’s impossible to make decisions about how to stay safe.”