SASKATOON -- The head of the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation (STF) says one way the provincial government fell short in its back-to-school planning by not requiring masks in schools this fall.

"They should be implementing them as mandatory for all students right from pre-K to Grade 12," STF president Patrick Maze said while speaking to reporters over Zoom on Tuesday shortly after the province publicly revealed its back-to-school playbook.

While the Saskatchewan government tasked the province's school divisions with developing their own return-to-school plans, it provided a series of mandatory guidelines.

Unlike in neighbouring Alberta, which also rolled out its back-to-school planning on Tuesday, masks won't be mandatory for students.

The Alberta government's plan requires mask use for students in Grades 4 through 12.

However, Maze said he has consulted with pre-K and Kindergarten teachers who say even younger children can learn to wear masks.

"(They) say we should be expecting younger children to wear masks. They can learn to wear masks, they are capable of that," Maze said.

The Saskatchewan government's plan does lay out a scenario where mandatory mask use could be required if there's a spike in COVID-19 cases and the Chief Medical Health Officer deems it necessary.

Maze feels it would be better to commit to mandatory mask use now rather than have students make the switch later in the school year.

"Having the next three weeks to get students used to masks, used to wearing masks, would substantially reduce student anxiety and allow parents an opportunity to get their children used to wearing them," Maze said.

On Tuesday the provincial government said it’s working to buy masks and distribute them to school divisions in the event their widespread use is needed — a move Maze called "a step in the right direction."

After the province's announcement of its Safe Schools Plan, Saskatchewan's school divisions began releasing their in-house return-to-school plans.

Both Saskatoon's public and Catholic school divisions make mention mask-wearing in their plans, but with different language.

In its plan, Saskatoon Public Schools says students are encouraged to wear their own masks at school when physical distancing is not achievable.

Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools plan says masks are recommended for students—particularly for transitions into and out of the school.

Maze wants something unequivocal.

"They should be declared as mandatory for all who enter our schools."

During a news conference in Regina on Tuesday, Education Minister Gord Wyant said that the decision to not require mask use is "the best practice for Saskatchewan, at least at the beginning."

Wyant said the decision was made based on the advice of Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's Chief Medical Health Officer.

"Many experts have said you need to provide as normal and reassuring environment as possible when school starts, especially for younger children," Shahab said during the news conference.

"You can safely start school without the use of masks in every grade," Shabab said, pointing to COVID-19 transmission trends seen in Saskatchewan since May.

Shahab also said the absence of outbreaks in daycares should offer some additional reassurance.