The Chinook School Division is following the directives of the provincial government to end the proof of vaccination or negative test requirements and masking will become optional in schools.
The Chinook Board of Education voted in favour of a motion to implement these changes during a regular board meeting, Feb. 14.
The motion acknowledges that senior administration has rescinded the administrative policy (AP 405.1) requiring vaccination or proof of a negative test for employees and other individuals. In addition, the motion noted that senior administration will review the Chinook Return to School Plan.
Director of Education Mark Benesh told the Prairie Post after the meeting the decision of the board came as a result of the recent announcement by Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe that the provincial requirement to provide proof of vaccination or negative tests was going to end on Feb. 14 and the remaining public health orders requiring masking will expire at the end of February.
In addition, the Chinook School Division received an advisory from the Ministry of Education indicating that school divisions are expected to lift these COVID-19 measures.
“So then the board has asked admin to rescind our APs, which is our work, that would remove the mask mandate and then also remove our AP 405.1, which has a restriction around people being either vaccinated or providing a negative test,” he said.
The advisory from the Minister of Education set out a clear expectation of what the provincial government wanted school divisions to do.
“The minister basically gave a directive that those two things should be removed and they would prefer that school divisions not have either in place,” Benesh explained. “They’re basically telling us that they should be removed as part of their province wide removal of those two things.”
The Chinook School Division is complying with this directive, because it falls within the legal jurisdiction of the Minister of Education to issue such a directive under the terms of the Education Act.
“The Minister of Education has the power to make decisions on what we need to do and not do,” he said. “They’re directives, and so they’re basically saying that they believe this is where they want us to be and we need to do that.”
The requirement for students, staff and school visitors to wear a mask will not apply any longer effective Feb. 28. However, schools will remain mask friendly and both options will be supported within schools.
“All of our schools will be mask friendly as they were earlier in the year,” he noted. “We didn’t have a mask mandate in September and we will be supporting all students and staff making their own choice around that. We will support someone deciding not to wear a mask and we will support students and staff who choose to wear mask, and we will be providing them. They’ll have them in schools, but we will be ensuring that people have choice moving forward after Feb. 28.”
According to Benesh there were in most cases no issues previously when the wearing of masks was optional in schools within the division.
“I think overall most people have been respectful,” he said. “I believe there were a few circumstances that were brought to our attention and so our goal here is to help message and support that we hope that all can be respected in the process. We believe that can be the case, but we have to help everyone just to understand why it’s so important for that, because we do want our schools to be just safe, positive places and because of that then each individual has to be accepting of whatever the choice might be.”
The school division will be reviewing and updating the Chinook Return to School Plan, but he expected that some of the details in this plan will remain in place.
“Likely some things are going to stay, like we’re still going to encourage hand hygiene,” he said. “We talked to Dr. Torr today and he talked about how important that still is. Some things will be remaining as they had been and cleaning is a part of that, but there may be some give on some other aspects, depending on our circumstance, because right now with Omicron and everything else things slowly change over time and so we’ll make those recommendations based on our circumstance that we’re dealing with.”
He emphasized it is still important for students and staff to stay at home when they are sick or to go home when they start to feel sick while they are at school.
“That will still be in place,” he said. “The big message in all of our messaging has been if you have symptoms or not feeling well, you should stay home and if kids or staff develop it while they’re at school, they should go home. And so those two things will still happen, because we just have to do our best just to protect our circumstances and so we would hope that anyone who has any symptoms and not feeling well will make that good choice and not coming to school, whether that be student or staff.”
A previous change in provincial COVID-19 self-isolation and close contact protocols in late January meant that parents and caregivers are no longer required to notify schools about positive test results. Schools therefore have no formal record of the number of COVID-19 related cases, as was previously the case.
“It’s not an obligation to, there’s no process,” he said. “We do still have to report absences in any building above 10 per cent. We always would with Health and so if we’re getting to a number above those, it’s likely telling us that we have a few more cases related to COVID, flu or other illnesses that would be in that circumstance, but we wouldn’t have a way of separating that out anymore.”
The school division will continue to follow this approach in the future and consult with Public Health if there is a significant level of absenteeism in a school due to illness.
“If we have a high absentee rate in any school, we’d be reporting that to Health and with their guidance we’ll make decisions based on their recommendations, but we will not have the same level of data that can confirm things as we previously would have,” he said. “We would still go through a process of informing Health, having conversations around that, and then supporting that school in whatever steps or measures we need to put in place.”