Questions linger one month into Saskatchewan’s back-to-school plan

Saskatchewan’s Safe Schools Plan has been in full swing for nearly a month.

While some parents continue to gain confidence in the procedures put in place, others are still questioning if enough work went into the initial guidelines.

“We were anxious, we were apprehensive and worried,” said Regina mother Tenille Lafontaine when asked about her reaction to the plan.

“Then we had the task of trying to make sure our kids didn’t feel that from us.”

One of the biggest challenges, Lafontaine said, was getting her kids excited about back-to-school even though she wasn’t confident in the plan herself.

Read more: COVID-19 outbreak declared at Yorkton Regional High School, classes move online

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While differing protocols across divisions still have her questioning the province’s response.

“Kids are going to come to school with a runny nose. How do we keep our kids safe? But how do we keep them educated this school year and make sure that they’re still going to be able to learn?”

Saskatchewan Party Leader Scott Moe continues to show confidence in the Safe Schools Plan put forward to Saskatchewan’s 27 school divisions.

“We were working on a plan throughout the summer with respect to our back-to-school plan and I believe we have one of the strongest plans in the nation,” Moe told Global News in a Sept. 24 interview.

The province released its Safe Schools Plan on Aug. 4.

One week later, the government gave school divisions the option to enter level two of the plan, which allowed each division to increase safety measures, like mandatory masks, as they saw fit.

Read more: Saskatchewan school divisions mandate masks, but parents say more needs to be done

On Aug. 15, the province announced an additional $40 million in funding, while delaying the start of class until Sept. 8.

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At the end of August, school specific plans went out and the province released information packages for parents that outlined what would happen if a student tested positive for the coronavirus.

While parents like Lafontaine call individual school plans “inconsistent” across the province, the Saskatchewan School Boards Association (SSBA) said they are “necessary.”

Shawn Davidson, SSBA president, said schools needed to make their own plans around bus transportation, entrances and exits, recess times and the flow of students in classrooms and hallways.

Read more: Saskatchewan School Board Association ‘welcoming’ recent changes to Safe Schools Plan

“All of those different things had to be considered at the school level. Within that, those school level plans were consistent with division plans and division plans were consistent with the provincial plans,” Davidson said.

Collaboration with all levels of education was key to a “relatively smooth start-up,” according to Davidson.

An uptake in distanced learning

Three weeks into the first month of school, Davidson said more than 90 per cent of students are learning inside the classroom.

“We’ve certainly seen an increased uptake in online learning and home schooling this year, but some of those students are continuing to come back,” Davidson said.

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“They’ve seen the school divisions’ plans in action and seen that things are working.”

However, some parents are still keeping their kids at home.

Saskatoon mother Bailie Smith enrolled her 10-year-old daughter in distanced learning.

Read more: More Saskatchewan parents consider homeschooling amid coronavirus pandemic

“I didn’t think that the (Safe Schools Plan) was very well thought out and I don’t think the school divisions had time to think of well-thought-out plans either,” Smith said.

“Distanced learning just seemed like the better option for both of us. It quelled my anxieties, it quelled her anxieties, and this way I know my household is safe.”

Smith plans to keep her daughter in the at-home program for the rest of the year.

According to Moe, there are contingency funds sidelined if COVID-19 supports, such as distanced learning, need to be expanded in schools.

“You may see an extension of some of that depending on whether some students return to the classroom or stay with the distanced learning model,” Moe said.

As of Sept. 30, two schools in Saskatchewan, Indian Head Elementary School and Yorkton Regional High School, have had to temporarily move to online learning due to COVID-19 infections.

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Addressing classroom sizes

After speaking with her kids’ schools directly, many of Lafontaine’s anxieties were put to rest.

However, she is looking for answers concerning her biggest fears — overcrowded classrooms and ventilation in schools.

“(Ventilation) is great right now. Teachers can open windows in classrooms, they can get outside. But what’s going to happen in November?” Lafontaine said.

Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili is running on a promise to hire more teaching staff and reduce class sizes.

Read more: Saskatchewan election tracker 2020: Here’s what the parties are promising

He said overcrowded classrooms are an all-too-familiar problem made worse by the pandemic.

“We know that we need to keep those class sizes low to protect kids,” Meili told Global News in an interview Sept. 25.

“We should take this opportunity to reduce class sizes. That’s a great way to keep COVID-19 under control, but also to invest in our future.”

Meili has yet to reveal the cost of his class size reduction plan, but he told Global News that will be released during the election campaign.

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Election day in Saskatchewan is Oct. 26.

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