REGINA — Concerns about Saskatchewan's back-to-school plan are legitimate, the premier said Friday as doctors added to calls for more safety measures when schools reopen in September.
Premier Scott Moe said the province's chief medical officer and his team are looking at whether wearing masks should be mandatory for students and staff because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"There's a large number of people that want mandatory masks in schools. There's also a large number of people that don't want mandatory masks in schools," Moe said in an interview Friday. "It's a very divisive conversation."
Moe said that when complaints were made in the past about the province's plan to reopen businesses and services during the pandemic, Dr. Saqib Shahab was open to making changes addressing the worries.
"I would expect no less of his recommendation in this situation," Moe said, adding that the province's back-to-school plan was designed to be adaptable.
The plan announced earlier this week will send students back to class in as normal a way as possible. There are some added restrictions, such as staggered start times and preventing physical contact, but masks are not mandatory and class sizes won't be reduced.
Other provinces, including Alberta and Ontario, are requiring staff and students in Grades 4 to 12 to wear masks when schools reopen in the fall.
Saskatchewan's Ministry of Education has encouraged teachers and parents to take a look at more detailed safety plans developed by school divisions in the province. Some boards are also encouraging students to wear masks when physical distancing isn't possible.
The Saskatchewan Medical Association said Friday that its leaders recently met with Shahab and other officials to discuss the plan. It said doctors have concerns and want to see more clear direction about wearing masks.
"Saskatchewan doctors think it's prudent to set the safety bar higher at the outset, then lower it when we know what we are dealing with," association president Dr. Barbara Konstantynowicz said in a news release.
"Closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded spaces with many people, and close-contact settings with close-range conversations are not uncommon in schools and these realities need to be front and centre in back to school plans."
Education Minister Gord Wyant said Friday that, in response to the association's concerns and recommendations from the Public Health Agency of Canada, the province is looking at making masks mandatory.
Wyant defended the government's current plan as safe for staff and children, but he said six million masks have been ordered and will be available for the school year should they be required.
"We've always said that this is a very fluid situation."
Wyant said the government strongly believes in the advice of the chief medical health officer.
"We'll continue to look for advice. ... Dr. Shahab is the chief medical health officer in this province and the advice he's been giving us so far has been very good and I have no reason to doubt the advice he's giving us now," Wyant said.
The Opposition NDP has slammed Saskatchewan's back-to-school plan as one of the worst in Canada for failing to address the concerns of families and teachers. The Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation has also said it believes masks should be mandatory.
Some sit-ins were held Friday at the offices of Saskatchewan Party legislature members by parents who said they want more safety precautions implemented and smaller class sizes.
The province reported 23 new cases and an additional death from COVID-19 on Friday. Thirteen people were in hospital.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 7, 2020