REGINA — Saskatchewan plans to bring students back to classrooms under conditions as close to normal as possible, and that does not yet include the mandatory use of masks.
On Tuesday, the province released guidelines that its 27 school divisions have used to craft their own detailed plans on how to safely resume in-person classes in September.
Education Minister Gord Wyant said the province reviewed each plan, with the aim of welcoming back students to a regular routine during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We believe that's important," he said during a news conference.
"Medical professionals and other professionals have indicated to us ... that kids get back to school in as normal a situation as possible, not just for socialization and for education, but for their mental health."
The ministry's plan lists different scenarios that could come into effect based on advice from the province's chief medical health officer.
Saskatchewan reported 253 active cases of COVID-19, with nine new infections on Tuesday. The scenario being planned so far has classrooms functioning much like they were before the COVID-19 pandemic, with some additional precautions.
Schools are to have dedicated quarantine areas, where symptomatic students can go before they are picked up by parents. Recesses, lunch breaks and classes are to be staggered.
There will also be increased cleaning, assigned seating for transportation and measures to prevent physical contact, like promoting "air high fives" versus hugging.
The government said pushing physical distancing for younger grades isn't practical, that's why there's a focus on less physical contact.
Wyant was asked why the reopening scenario does not include mandating mask use for students and staff.
"We think that that's the best practice for Saskatchewan, at least at the beginning," he said, adding masks could still be required based on what public health officials feel is best.
Some six million masks have been ordered but haven't arrived yet. The plan is to have them by Sept. 1.
On Tuesday, Alberta announced that masks will be mandatory for most students and staff when classes resume, similar to school reopening plans in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
"There are differences with respect to plans in every jurisdiction in this country," said Wyant.
Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said it's possible to reopen schools for all grades without masks when there's low transmission of COVID-19. He also said there have been no outbreaks tied to daycares, which have been operating for weeks.
Shahab has encouraged people to mask up when staying far enough apart isn't possible. He suggested masks could be useful for older students.
"We need to balance the benefits of mask use, especially in younger children, with some of the potential challenges that can present to provide a normal school environment," he said.
The Opposition NDP called the Saskatchewan Party government's guidelines the worst back-to-school plan in the country.
"I am upset. I'm angry. And I won't accept this as a plan," said NDP education critic Carla Beck.
The party had been calling for clear direction on mask use, smaller class sizes and dedicated funding to reopen schools — all of which is missing, she said.
"I expected better than this."
The Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation said it's encouraged that the government is considering the use of masks as a contingency plan.
"We all want to return to the classroom, but it must be done safely," said federation president Patrick Maze. "Considering masks is a step in the right direction."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2020