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Safety and consistency in education remain priorities for two school divisions

School divisions comment on the plans for the 2021-2022 school year.
Sacred Heart School
Many families were out at Sacred Heart School / Ecole Sacre Coeur Monday afternoon, dropping off backpacks, meeting teachers and asking questions during the school's open house ahead of Sept. 1. Chelsey, Jeremy, Hunter and Ryley Istach, along with Areeb, Anaya, Seihan and Angela Hossain and Zennetul Ferdous, and Annorah and Raquel Klassen were spotted at one of the classrooms getting things ready for the beginning of the school year.

Safety of staff and students, as well as consistent education and mental health, are the main priorities for the South East Cornerstone Public School Division and the Holy Family Roman Catholic Separate School Division, according to their respective safe school plans for when the 2021-22 school year begins Sept. 1.

Both plans were released last week.

Cornerstone says all physical schools will adhere to the developed guidelines, which took a considerable amount of time to develop.

"It's been a challenging process. We have a shifting foundation, but our target has never changed. We're really working to return as close to normal as we can, while focusing on keeping everybody as safe as possible, following the guidance of our local health experts, and then specific to each area, because within the provincial plan, there is a direction to work locally, based on local epidemiology," pointed out Lynn Little, the director of education with SECPSD.

The Cyber Stone Virtual School within SECPSD is open for enrolment for those choosing a virtual environment for safety or personal reasons.

The public division says it is committed to working with its local medical health officers and health team to monitor the status and make changes to address the safety of students, staff and community.

Beginning Sept. 1 and until further notice, in Cornerstone, students in Grade 6 and under will be required to wear masks indoors at times where student cohorts are mixing, such as assemblies or paired class activities while in an indoor setting.

Cohorts are defined as groups of students who are together for the majority of the school day. At the pre-kindergarten to Grade 6 level, this is by grade/classroom.

All adults and students in Grade 7 and up, including visitors, vaccinated or not, are required to wear masks indoors when in areas and at functions where children under the age of 12 (Grade 6 and under) are present and in mixed cohorts.

All students, preK-12, and staff are required to wear masks on school buses due to the proximity of students who have not had access to vaccinations and the mixing of cohorts. This will be revisited upon vaccination availability, Cornerstone said in its plan.

"When we met with our local medical health officers, we dug into that (provincial) plan a little bit deeper, and really focused on the vulnerable children. And those are the children under the age of 12, who have not had the opportunity to access vaccinations," Little explained. "When you look at our plan, the masking requirements are really focused on that population that's under age 12. If the cohorts are mixing, then we'll have the children wear masks. That would happen if they happen to have an assembly or if there are two or three classes in the library at the same time. For the most part, we would anticipate that we'll keep those cohorts separate, which is a big part of the plan, and then masking isn't required."

All individuals, students, staff, and visitors who are not fully vaccinated are strongly recommended and encouraged to always wear masks while at school, or during school events. This is especially important, and is a staff responsibility, for staff working with children under the age of 12 (Grade 6 and under) and for students who are immune-compromised.

Visitors during the school day are directed to attend the office. Visitors to classrooms are not permitted during the instructional day for Grade 6 and under classrooms.

Masks will be made available at the schools.

Based on local epidemiology including potential outbreaks at schools and in communities, masks may be required in specific schools for all ages, staff and students, for the duration of an outbreak.

This decision and direction will be made in consultation with local medical health officers.

"While we anticipate the ability to remain localized as we respond, there may be significant changes and challenges in epidemiology that would require whole system response including masking or remote learning."

Public Health will conduct contact tracing as required, and officials will provide direction to individuals regarding isolation periods. Parents will be notified by SECPSD/schools when there has been exposure in school/class.

Communication will be via school messenger. If a full class has been identified as close contacts by health officials and if they are self-isolating, the class will move to remote learning for that period of time.

Where the 2021-22 Safe Schools Plan is silent on direction, the direction is a return to pre-pandemic practices.

"At this point in time extracurricular activities for Grades 7 through 12, because they've had access to vaccines, and because the province at this point is open to activities, are planned to resume very similar to how they would have operated pre-pandemic," Little said. "And we're really excited that extracurricular, and not just not just sport, but also the arts are back and we're able to move forward with that."

If the epidemiological situation changes, SECPSD will work with the local health authorities and Saskatchewan High Schools Athletic Association for guidance.

"As folks are going through the plans, I just encourage the parents to call and speak to their local school administration and staff, if they have questions about the return to school, what to expect and what it will look like. Give the school a call, the administrators are certainly prepared and ready to have conversations," Little said.

"It certainly wouldn't have been any of our wishes that we were still being impacted by COVID-19 in our operations, however, that's where we're at, so we'll continue to work to put supports and layers in place to keep the students and staff as safe as possible. But overall, we're looking forward to a year that more closely resembles 2019 than 2020. We're really excited about that. And we'd like to wish all students staff and families a great school year."

Holy Family says the key objective of its safe school plan is to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in Holy Family with attention to the Ministry Safe School Plan, Saskatchewan Health Authority-MHO best practice and board direction.

Students, staff and families who are ill should stay home, Holy Family said. Self-screening is in place for staff, safe school signage exists at all locations, and personal protective equipment is available at all sites.

Beginning Aug. 24 and until further notice, school visitors must wear masks and report to the school office.

All staff and students Grade 7 and over, vaccinated or not, are required to wear masks indoors when in common areas and in any mixed groups. Masks may be removed once inside their classrooms if safety protocols can be maintained.

All staff and students in Grade 6 and under will be required to wear masks indoors at all times in common areas and when their group is mixing with others. Masks may be removed once inside their classrooms if safety protocols can be maintained.

All staff and students in Grades 7 and up who are not fully vaccinated are strongly encouraged to wear masks while at school. This is critical when associating with vulnerable staff and students below the age of 12.

Masking expectations may change in the future depending on several variables.

"We have the support of our local medical health officers on this matter and status will be monitored. Our key priority remains putting into practice conditions that help reduce the spread of this pandemic," Holy Family stated in a news release.

Student transportation safety precautions will align with a local medical officer, assigned seating and attendance procedures. Cleaning and disinfecting protocols are in place.

Masking is required for all staff and all students on buses.

"(Masking requirements are) almost the same as last year. And we have many reasons for that. But some of the ones I would mention here would be right now we see the Delta variant is a very powerful spreader that is certainly wrapping up in the province, and we're watching how that's impacting us. We have no vaccinations available for children below the age of 12. Our school division is primarily elementary, so our objectives remain as they did last year to look at reducing the risk of transmission of whatever variants are running through the community, as well as reduce any disruption to instruction that we can," said Gwen Keith, the director of education in Holy Family.

"We want to take every effort we can, to put in place the procedures that if there is a contact tracing requirement to happen in our school, or with our staff or students … hopefully, there are less requirements for or isolation," she added.

Besides, the school division wanted to do its best to decrease the potential anxiety associated with going back to school. 

All staff will demonstrate Occupational Health and Safety compliance and refresh handwashing practices with students. Proper wash and drinking facilities are operational, and hand sanitization stations remain.

School staff will create a plan to address school safety that will include safe student and staff movement, grade groupings, seating plans, recess procedures and safe meal groupings.

Student isolation rooms remain available on all school sites and staff have been trained to address the needs in this area.

At this time, regular activities are resumed for sports, fitness, dance, drama, band, choral, field trips and extracurricular activities, all following safety protocols.

"We obviously will have safety protocols, as those are outlined for any sport and so on. But right now, we are certainly opening up those areas, which were not open really last year," Keith said.

She added that if the epidemiological situation changes in the area or at each particular school they will work with the health authorities to make adjustments.

"If we find we have to make changes, we've got pathways to address those. So that's one of the successful pieces we have is, unlike last year, we know how to pivot if we had a need to go to more increased remote learning. Now we've got the skills to do it. We've got the technology to do it. We don't have as much manpower, certainly, to do it. But we have pathways to do that," Keith said.

Mental health is another important part of the plan this year, and every school is outlining their own procedures to address any potential issues.

"Mental health and well-being of students and staff is of high importance and each school will have a plan to address this area with the support of division office."

Vulnerable staff and students relative to COVID will be cared for on an individual basis.

Holy Family says it will work closely with local medical officers to address emerging needs.

"It is strongly recommended that all parties become vaccinated when they are able. Students, staff and families are encouraged to access testing when needed."

Keith said a lot of time and effort went into the development of the division's safe back-to-school plan, and every school also partook in the process by putting individual details into it during the last week of August.

"Each one of our schools has a very comprehensive document, and we have support from our health partners to journey along with us as we get through school startup," Keith said.

"And I'm very, very proud of our staff, very proud of our facilities and plants, they are ready for students, and of the planning that we're putting into not only the physical piece but the mental health side of it.

"So I'm very excited about the year … I respect the position of various people, there are very polarized views on many things that go along with how to enter the school year. And we respect those views. But we need to have some coherence as we work with our schools and it takes all community to keep people safe and that's what we are trying to do."