Concerned parents, teachers and citizens attended a Mask Up for Education event in front of the office of Swift Current MLA Everett Hindley on Friday morning, Aug. 7, to raise their concerns over the provincial government's plan for students to return to in-class learning in the fall.
Similar Mask Up for Education rallies took place on the same day in other communities across Saskatchewan.
These rallies were organized after Minister of Education Gordon Wyant released the provincial Safe School Plan on Aug. 4. The plan provides four potential scenarios for students to return to school.
The level one scenario, which is the government’s preferred option for the start of the new school year, aims for school activities to be as close as normal as possible with some additional measures, but with no requirement for students or staff to wear masks.
The level two scenario will involve mask usage, but this will be determined by the provincial chief medical health officer. Classroom capacity will only be reduced if it becomes necessary to implement the level three scenario, which will be determined by the level of COVID-19 infection in the community.
As a last resort, the plan includes a level four scenario that will result in the suspension of in-class learning and the implementation of an online learning model.
Several people spoke at the rally in front of Swift Current MLA Everett Hindley’s downtown office. They referred to various shortcomings in the provincial plan, including that there will not be smaller class sizes and no mandatory masking policies.
Andrea McCrimmon, one of the organizers of the Swift Current rally, was the first speaker at the event.
“We're here today because people who I've talked to feel overwhelmingly that the province's Safe School Plan is inadequate and dangerous,” she said.
She referred to various concerns that she has heard from others. One concern is that the provincial plan only reacts to COVID-19 outbreaks after they have taken hold, rather than doing things to prevent outbreaks.
High school teacher Kristen Simonson compared the provincial plan with the planning that she will do in preparation for an outdoor education trip by students, and the felt the Safe School Plan was entirely inadequate.
“I am fazed by this lack of a plan to return to schools, because it directly goes against every aspect of risk management that governed my program and kept thousands of kids safe under my care for 21 years,” she said. “Government of Saskatchewan, this trip is not approved. It lacks detail and preparation. You need to do better, and you have a very short window to make that happen.”
Health care professional Tommi Ortega said she is standing with the teachers, because she has witnessed the impact of the COVID-19 virus on individuals.
“I have seen firsthand what this virus is capable of,” she noted. “People are dying, people are sick, and all we know right now is all we can do is wear masks, wash your hands, and social distance. … I want my kid to go to school, he needs school, he needs education, but he needs to be safe. The teachers need to be safe.”
Carol Thurston, who is a direct support worker with individuals with special needs, said it is going to be difficult for students with special needs to physically distance.
“That's one thing that they thrive on is touching and feeling and holding and having somebody care about them,” she mentioned.
She expressed her support for teachers and she felt the provincial government is not providing sufficient funds to open schools in a safe manner.
“I don't care what pocket of money it comes from, whether it's for health care providers or whether it's for teachers or for students, to make things safe it still comes from the same pair of pants, and those pants are the taxpayers' pants,” she said. “Everyone of us pay taxes to have a safe environment that we live in and if we can't live in that safe environment now for the next year, then there's something wrong with our government.”
Teacher Jennifer Cave-Ginter expressed concern over the impact that the return to school plan will have on the mental health of students, because it will not be safe for them to go back.
“When I think of the mental health issues that our students were already facing, the levels of anxiety and depression that we were already dealing with pre-pandemic, I can't even fathom in my wildest imagination what that's going to look like if we're going back to this,” she said.
She has received messages from some of her students during the summer and they were glad they were not in school, because they are scared to go back.
“If our kids can see how terrified and real this is, I don't understand why the leaders of our province can't do the same thing and step up and make the changes so we can be safe for real,” she said. “Just saying safe, will not make it safe.”
Stefan Rumpel, who will be the Saskatchewan NDP candidate in the upcoming provincial election, made some remarks at the rally. He felt people has the right to be angry that the government is not doing enough to create safe schools for the return of students.
“This government was the last to release a full plan in the country and they didn't even take cues from the rest of the country,” he said. “That's failing an open book test.”
He added that provincial government has underfunded education for years and this will have an impact on the ability to provide a safe learning environment for students.
“We need to acknowledge that the issues in education started well before this pandemic,” he said. “School divisions, parents and staff have been raising the alarm about underfunding for years. … We've never had a real conversation about class size and composition. How can this government say they're listening and say they're working when even in the middle of a pandemic we can't sit down and commit to smaller class sizes.”
Hindley was present at the rally and he addressed the group after listening to their concerns. He said this issue will be on the agenda of an upcoming government caucus meeting.
“Obviously it's important to hear from people locally and that's why I'm appreciative of this turnout today,” he said. “I've been taking notes throughout this, I've been following feedback on social media and also talking to folks on both sides of this issue who have been calling and e-mailing my office here and myself by contacting me directly. So this is important feedback for me to have, and I can tell you that I will take this back to Regina and will speak to Minister Wyant and the premier and fellow cabinet members and colleagues in our caucus and make sure that your concerns are heard.”