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Saskatchewan schools take on contact tracing once done by health-care workers

REGINA — As a registered nurse and COVID-19 case investigator in Saskatchewan, Carolyn Strom says she is no longer allowed to reach out to schools.
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REGINA — As a registered nurse and COVID-19 case investigator in Saskatchewan, Carolyn Strom says she is no longer allowed to reach out to schools.

During previous waves of the pandemic, it was her responsibility to contact-trace positive cases in students, pass along information to schools recommended by a local medical health officer, and deal with parents' concerns and questions. 

But as the province deals with record-high cases due to Omicron, that responsibility has now fallen to school principals and administrators.

"If your kid is positive, public health doesn't get involved with collaborating with schools to make it safe anymore. It's on the parents and it's on the schools," Strom said from her home in Prince Albert. 

"And as a parent, it scares the crap out of me."

Strom worries the new system will result in cases being missed.

"People are scared when they test positive and they're worried. In the past, schools would call us. Now they're being asked to call 811 (the province's health line)."

Principals who are asked a health-care related question will have a flow sheet they can reference, said Strom, but they're not able to give health advice. 

"With no health background, to do this kind of work is mind-boggling to me," she said.

Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, said school administrators are not equipped to handle health-related questions from parents. 

He said it shows how the health-care system is overwhelmed.

"So we have got an overwhelmed health-care system that is spilling over into an overwhelmed education system and ultimately it represents two massive failures in government to be able to respond to the pandemic," said Maze. 

Last week, Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, said Omicron is five to eight times more transmissible than the Delta variant and the province's health-care system can't keep up with the rise in cases.   

"It is not something that can be managed by the usual public health follow up, case contact investigation, outbreak and contact investigation," Shahab said at the time. "For the most part that's just not possible anymore."

And neither is it for some school divisions. 

Saskatoon Public Schools, the province's largest school division that serves over 26,000 students and employs over 2,400 teachers and staff, said it is not doing any contact tracing.

"We do not have staff available to do this work in our schools," said spokeswoman Veronica Baker. 

Last week, Education Minister Dustin Duncan announced that all students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 through a rapid test or PCR test must notify schools themselves through the "honour system."

However, because at-home tests are not lab-confirmed, the Saskatchewan Health Authority stopped drafting letters for parents and divisions that verified positive cases in classrooms. 

The Saskatchewan Health Authority was not immediately available for comment.

School divisions now report cases to families directly by email, social media, or on their websites. 

Shawn Davidson, president of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, said the province's 27 school divisions have raised concerns about having to contact trace as they deem it a health role, not the responsibility of educators.

"Some additional expectations have been placed on our school division administration around some of what we would deem to be a health role and that certainly poses some challenges for school divisions," he said.

Davidson said no additional resources have been provided to school divisions by the government to take on the role. 

Maze said educators have been asked to do something different that they're not prepared or equipped for.

"At what point does the system break and we start to lose people to stress leave and simple exhaustion as opposed to losing people already due to COVID?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2022. 

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press