SASKATOON -- When school resumes this fall in Saskatoon amid the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the experience will be a different one, where a child with a case of the sniffles could be quickly whisked away to an on-site quarantine area to await pickup by a parent or a caregiver.

On Tuesday, a little under a month before the start of the 2020-21 school year, the provincial government released more details about its guidelines to resume in-person classes which were suspended in March.

The province's school divisions have had their draft reopening plans reviewed to ensure they meet the requirements laid out in the Safe Schools Plan, which was developed by the Response Planning Team formed by the education ministry in March.

Under the plan, parents are asked to serve as the first line of defence against the spread of COVID-19, closely monitoring their kids for any sign of illness and to keep them home if symptoms are present.

If a child exhibits symptoms at school, the student will immediately be quarantined until a parent or caregiver can pick them up from school. 

Under the guidelines, students can expect assigned seating on buses with kids who live in the same household grouped together. Parents are encouraged to transport their kids to and from school when possible.

Buses will be sanitized between runs and students can expect dedicated entrance and exit doors when arriving at school.

Recess, lunch and other transition times will be staggered. Directional signs and floor markings will also help control the flow of students, the province says in its plan.

Hand sanitizer availability will be increased "whenever possible" and custodial staff will provide "consistent sanitation." Cleaning frequently-touched surfaces like toys and classroom equipment is also among the protocols for the upcoming school year.

School divisions must limit physical contact such as hugs and hand-holding and should encourage contactless greetings like "air-fives." The Ministry of Education also recommends configuring classrooms to minimize contact and using outdoor spaces for learning when possible. Also, the sharing of school supplies is discouraged.

The guidelines also include measures intended to address the needs of immune-compromised students either in an in-school setting or "other appropriate spaces." 

In its guidelines, the province outlines three additional "levels" which would be used to implement tighter health controls if the Chief Medical Health Officer deems it necessary.

Under the first level, which is the baseline scenario the province is readying for, the return to school is "as close to normal as possible" with added health measures in place.

Level Two would see mask usage in schools as determined by the Chief Medical Health Officer. The masks are being purchased by the Ministry of Education and distributed to school divisions, according to the province.

If the Chief Medical Health Officer deems it necessary for the level of precaution to be ratcheted up further, Level Three would see a reduction in the number of students and staff inside schools.

"This may include establishing cohorts and hybrid learning models as considerations," the province says.

Level Four would see a transition to mandatory remote learning.

"We may well have to reduce class sizes; we may well have to put other things in place," Education Minister Gord Wyant said while responding to questions during a news conference held in Regina Tuesday afternoon.  

"That's really based on a community transmission model and it will be based on the advice of the Chief Medical Health Officer," Wyant said.

NDP calls  plan Canada's 'worst'

On the heels of the Ministry of Education’s plan to return students to the classroom this fall, the opposition NDP said the plan is similar to what other provincial governments provided months ago.

NDP Education Critic Carla Beck called Minister Gord Wyant’s plan “the worst plan in Canada,” saying it falls short from a detailed plan. 

“Our Saskatchewan NDP team has spent months talking to educators, health professionals and families. There is a massive gap between what they are telling us needs to happen and what we see today from this Sask. Party government,” Beck said in a news release.

“What Gord Wyant has produced is not a plan for schools - it is a plan to fail the test of protecting students, families and education professionals.”

Last week the NDP laid out seven recommendation in its back-to-school plan. Beck said what the province is proposing leaves many questions around class sizes, testing and plans for immuno-compromised teachers and students. 

“It is inexcusable that the government has had this long to prepare and has made no effort to reduce class sizes or take seriously the conversation on masks that is happening around the country," Beck said.

Saskatoon Catholic, public divisions share plans

On Tuesday, after the provincial government's annoucnement, Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools (GSCS) released its plan for a fall return to the classroom.

In its plan the school board said it will offer learning opportunities in classrooms and online. 

GSCS said it will be using its Cyber School course to support families keeping their children at home. A full choice of classes are available for grades 9-12. 

Courses for kindergarten to Grade 8 will be offered both live with a teacher online with students and asynchronously, meaning students will be able to access course materials on their own at any time, with the support of a teacher when available. 

GSCS said Cyber School will identify student groups who will work together as a class with a teacher who will provide programming for specific grades. Student groups may include students from a variety of schools in similar grades. 

GSCS will also use a QR code for contact-tracing, to track people entering school facilities. 

As mandated in the provincial guidlines, there will also be signage, visible cues and plexiglass installed before school starts to encourage physical distancing. 

Water fountains will be closed and each school will have at least two bottle-filling stations. 

For new kindergarten students a staggered entry plan will be in place that will slowly build attendance at school. 

For high school students the GCSC said its preparing to schedule classes in a different way to allow for significantly reduced student-to-student contact. More details are forthcoming. 

Field trips and extra-curricular activities will be on pause. 

Students taking the bus will be assigned seats, PPE will be mandated for drivers and masks for students are strongly recommended.

Saskatoon Public Schools also released its plan Tuesday.

The division said it will focus on keeping student groups "consistent" in elementary schools to limit the number of daily student interactions. 

Also, the use of lockers will be minimized with students instead being asked to bring what they need for school each day in backpacks.

Like other school divisions in the province, online learning will be offered for students whose parents choose to keep them out of school.

"It is acknowledged that, for various reasons, some families will choose to keep their children at home rather than have them attend face-to-face instruction. These students will have the opportunity to engage in an online learning program," the division says in the plan.

Though not required, in its plan the public division also recommends students wear their own masks when physical distancing is not possible.

Also in its plan, the public school board says staff members will be provided with a reusable mask and face shield they can when they can't physically distance.

Teacher has 'huge concerns'

Joe Hitchings teaches grade four in Saskatoon and says he has "huge concerns" about the province's planning.

"Because the concrete pieces aren’t being put in place. It’s saying safe? Safe? What does safe look like?”

 Hitchings has been teaching for 15 years and feels teachers are also being burdened with being medical experts.

He said he's concerned that teachers are now tasked with making decisions about student symptoms and then having to figure out who a student came into contact with at the school, then there’s the simple precautions that will likely become complex.

"Where does this medical expertise come from? I’ve even read that there’s a whole protocol to putting on PPE. I’m not trained in that. Are we going to be provided training?”

Hitchings has decided not to send his own two kids back to school and is considering leaving them out until a vaccine is found. 

He said he hopes parents speak out about what he calls a flawed plan so that changes can be made before school starts.

--With files from Francois Biber, Carla Shynkaruk and Josh Lynn