With COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan rising while testing continues to lag well behind the national average, Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili and Education Critic Carla Beck called on the Sask. Party government to get serious about plans to reopen schools in September, and laid out seven essential requirements for a safe back-to-school plan.

“It’s so important that we get this right. The first priority for the safe reopening of schools during the pandemic period is the safety of children, teachers and education staff,” said Meili. “Health Minister Jim Reiter has failed to manage the COVID-19 pandemic effectively, with inadequate testing, inadequate preparation within the health system, and no clear plan for safe school reopening. This has left parents flying blind as they prepare to send their kids back to school. Parents want our kids to go back to school, safely.”

Meili and Beck set out seven key requirements for a safe reopening plan, based on consultations with teachers, parents, and healthcare professionals:

  1. Fix COVID-19 testing. Testing and tracing capacity must be in place to ensure that any outbreak is identified and dealt with swiftly. We must also ensure parents and teachers not be faced with testing delays of a week or more as we see today. Further, the government must report daily on how many people are waiting for tests and how long people are waiting for tests and results.
  2. Smaller class sizes. Even before COVID-19, our classrooms were far too crowded and understaffed. It is absolutely unacceptable to send kids back into the same crowded conditions in the middle of a pandemic. The government must lower class sizes with appropriate funding and planning in place.
  3. Dedicate funding. The Saskatchewan NDP called on the government to provide the needed funding for schools to prepare during the June sitting of the legislature, but the government hid behind a cross-government contingency fund. With cases rising, now is the time to assign dedicated dollars to ensure safe school transportation (including safe busing) and appropriate staffing of both instructional and support staff (including substitute teachers and educational assistants) with enough capacity to ensure smaller class sizes and increased protective measures.
  4. Provide guidance on outbreaks. Provide clear procedures for what to do when students or staff test positive or have symptoms. Ensure processes are in place to quickly communicate potential school-based or community-specific outbreaks to families.
  5. Plan for a phased approach. This means planning for different scenarios:
    1. Low case transmissions that would allow for full in-person learning;
    2. Increased community transmission that would necessitate hybrid instruction models;
    3. High caseloads, which would require a return to learning from home for most students. 
  6. Provide for alternate and distance learning. Address the digital divide, ensuring all students have access to technology and resources for any distance learning. Identify spaces close to existing schools that could be used for instructional purposes, including for support of immuno-compromised teachers and students, and those with immuno-compromised family members. We also need clear guidelines to make sure that students with special needs are not forgotten or excluded in a return to school.
  7. Provide adequate PPE, as well as clear guidelines on mask use. Funding needs to be clearly identified so that every school division is able to provide PPE and have the staff available to do the necessary added sanitation work. This includes an urgent need for clear guidance on mask use in common areas in schools – and the distribution of masks and PPE in schools.

“Without clear guidelines and resources in place, the Sask. Party is once again downloading responsibility to individual schools and school divisions. Getting school reopening right is essential for Saskatchewan children, and for the successful reopening of our economy. Scott Moe needs to take these sensible steps to protect our kids and the entire province at this extraordinary time.” said Meili.

“We need real leadership to return our kids to school safely, but this government has let families down,” said Beck. “Let’s get this right today so that we are not just setting our teachers, our students, and our communities up for failure tomorrow.”