Sask. Teachers' Federation, NDP raise alarms over COVID in schools

·3 min read
The Saskatchewan NDP and the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation say the government needs to do more to keep kids safe in schools. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC - image credit)
The Saskatchewan NDP and the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation say the government needs to do more to keep kids safe in schools. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC - image credit)

As COVID-19 case numbers rise and more Saskatchewan children contract the illness, schools are scrambling to keep their students safe.

At a recent physicians' town hall, doctors from the Saskatchewan Health Authority confirmed there were 17 children in the province hospitalized with COVID-19 — the highest number at any point in the pandemic so far — with the vast majority too young to be vaccinated. Many were under the age of five.

Saskatchewan NDP education critic Carla Beck called the statistics on hospitalized children "devastating, but not surprising."

"Throughout the pandemic, the premier and the education minister have minimized the risk to kids," Beck said at a news conference Friday.

"With a record number of kids in our hospital today, it's clear that they're not safe, and that — despite heroic efforts by school boards and staff — transmission is occurring in our schools."

With 2021-22 school funding decisions imminent, Beck called on Education Minister Dustin Duncan to refrain from cutting any school budgets this school year.

"Each fall, the minister makes a choice whether to adjust funding to reflect enrolments.… For some divisions, they see cuts at mid-year. This simply cannot happen this year," she said.

"In no world would it be acceptable to claw back funding from schools in a pandemic."

CBC reached out to Duncan for comment Saturday, but he could not immediately be reached.

Beck wants to see schools get extra funding for improvements to their ventilation systems, personal protective equipment and vaccine clinics for younger students once they become eligible for a vaccine.

"We want to make sure divisions aren't drawing from their education dollars to provide that protection," she said.

'Lax measures' at start of school year: STF president

Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation president Patrick Maze says the Saskatchewan Party government should have put more safety measures in place before the start of the school year.

"We started the school year with very lax measures," he said.

"There wasn't even masking necessary in … most schools across the province."

While some schools saw case number rise and implemented mask mandates, that was "too little, too late," Maze said in an interview with CBC on Saturday.

"We're responding to a virus by doing the least restrictive measures, and we're paying for it."

Two months into the school year, Maze said there have been ongoing issues with contact tracing and isolation requirements for students who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. Teachers and other school staff have had to take on contact tracing duties in the evening after work, he says.

"They're already overloaded with extra work from doing extra duties during COVID," said Maze. "It's not sustainable."

Currently, each of the province's 27 school boards is responsible for creating its own COVID-19 response strategy, which Maze says adds another layer of confusion.

"There should be one procedure that all school divisions are expected to comply with," he said.

"But everybody is politically worried that we're going to get parents upset.… When government downloads the decision-making onto school divisions, basically they're trying to escape the heat from the electorate, and that's really frustrating."

Maze said the government should have required vaccinations for all eligible staff and students before the start of the school year.

"We have to make sure that those students who aren't eligible for vaccinations, that we've created a firewall of vaccinated students and adults around them," he said.

"And unfortunately we haven't done that, and now students are paying the price.

"We have 17 children in hospital right now ... which means we haven't done our job. We haven't protected our youth."

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