Chinook unveils Return to School Plan for fall classes

Chinook School Division

The Chinook School Division released their Return to School Plan on August 26, giving staff, students and families a one week advance notice of their strategy before the first day of classes on September 2.

The Chinook Board of Education conducted a two and a half hour meeting on August 25 to discuss details of the plan and approved the plan before it was released on Thursday.

“We’re excited to get back to school. I think we were all hoping it would be without COVID, but that’s not happening,” noted Chinook School Division Director of Education Mark Benesh. “I just have to celebrate all of the work our staff’s did, and the cooperation with our students and families last year, to do all we could. And I think they did their best work given such difficult circumstances to work around. And I know we go in this year optimistic and hopeful that not as many of those challenging situations will appear. But I know that I have full confidence in our staff, and also in our students and families, that we’ll rally around whatever is required and do what we can to ensure that our students have the best school experience possible academically, in supporting them with their mental health, and just being able to participate and be with students in the manner that makes them feel good about their school.”

Benesh noted that over the past while administration and the board have been reviewing information from a variety of sources, including the Saskatchewan Health Authority, the provincial government, the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, the Saskatchewan Medical Association, plus what other provinces are doing along with international COVID perspectives.

“The board has been given a variety of bits of information over a period of time as we moved forward to create our re-open plan. Last night was just the board’s process to finalize what it looked like so we could forward to all our staff and parents and communities so that they could begin and understand just what school looks like when we return.”

He added that Wednesday’s two and a half hour meeting allowed them to hear some important perspectives.

“The meeting was very professional. We heard from our local Health Officer for close to an hour and then the board reviewed a variety of options. We had prepared some other information for them and we went through. We also helped them understand all the implications related to ensuring trying to keep our students and staff safe. We had a good discussion and feedback that I think would represent the views across the division. And in the end made a decision around some of these areas, and then our admin took what they wanted and finished the plan last night so that we could put it out this morning.”

The four page plan, available for full viewing at provides guidance in the areas of attendance, transportation, school access, facilities, classrooms, activities, plus public health information.

Their newly adopted masking regulations require students and staff in Pre K to Grade 12 to mask while in hallways, washrooms and common areas when other classes and present and while on school buses. However, they are only recommending that students and staff wear masks while in the classroom.

“We support our students and families in making that choice,” Benesh said of the choice to wear a mask while in the classroom. “The science of it is pretty definitive that it is beneficial if there is the virus in that circumstance it would protect against. But we also understand that given our present circumstance there may be no virus in that building and thus people are making a choice whether they should mask or not. So the board made a decision to allow families and students to make that choice individually, and we are going to support those who do mask and we’ll support those who chose not too.”

He pointed out that the requirement to wear a mask in hallways and in common spaces when other classes are present helps limit any COVID spread if it does turn up in a school.

“What will happen, in hallways, in other settings, we start to mix our students. So if we were to get a positive test, and we’re trying to limit the number of students impacted, or staff – the number that might have to go to online learning because they’re close contacts or not. So the more we open up that circumstance the more we’re impacted across the whole building. The reason we are putting the ‘required’ in in those spaces is it then kind of contains the circumstance if we do get a positive test.”

Masking is required for all parents/caregivers/visitors at any Chinook school, and non-essential visitation to schools will be limited at this time.

“If I visited a school coming in it’s expected that I would wear a mask in those buildings. And so it’s just a protection because we want to try and ensure that our students and staff are safe. If we bring in a bunch of people we just want to ensure that some protocols are in place.”

Back on August 20 the provincial government highlighted the importance of the COVID-19 vaccination, but they were only encouraging all people aged 12 and over to be fully vaccinated and chose not to pursue vaccination passports or other vaccination requirements. Similarly, the Chinook School Division is following the provincial recommendation and not making vaccinations a requirement for stuff or students.

“The board has not at any point discussed making vaccinations mandatory for staff or students, so no there’s been no discussion on that topic,” Benesh said.

The Return to School Plan paves the way for extra-curricular, fine arts and special activities. Certain activities will resume where optimal spacing is possible, and requirements for other activities are still being finalized.

“We’re excited to allow our students to have access to whether it be in the arts areas or in sports. We’re still gathering some direction from what other school divisions, what other sports governing bodies are recommending. So with us finishing our plan to return to school, we’re now kind of focusing and doing some work around the extra curricular and any provisions that we would have in just to ensure that the activities are safe and that our students can take advantage of in the best possible way.”

Division-wide enhanced cleaning and disinfection will continue in a fashion similar to the previous school year. Benesh shared that the board was proactive in purchasing Jade Air Purifiers and Bipolar Ionization Units last year, and both are highly regarded in their ability to support a healthier environment. They have purchased additional units for some additional classrooms across the school division.

“The measures that our staff took in ensuring that the buildings are clean, touch points are clean. Some of the our teaching staff, support staff, all the work that they did – along with our facility operators – did a lot of work in just ensuring that staff and students are safe. And those practices are going to be continued because COVID still is here and thus we need to try and protect students and staff in those situations as well.”

Students will learn about respiratory etiquette and proper hand hygiene will be enforced when entering schools, classrooms, plus before and after eating. The plan stresses understandings and practice hygiene, and to encourage those measure as much as possible to keep kids and class safe.

“One is to ensure that we teach that hand hygiene’s important, not just for COVID but for flu season. The more we can do with that we get to keep our kids in the building more often because they’re not sick.”

Benesh clarified the details of provincial exams being optional for the 2021-22 school year.

“The only way that we would have a departmental exam is if an individual student chooses to write it instead of their own teachers’ exam. That doesn’t happen very often,” he said. “It’s framed that way just because if a student for whatever reason wanted to write the departmental they still could.”

And while this is the Return to School Plan, specifics of the plan will evolve as circumstances change.

“They expect us to consistently update them on the changing circumstances, whether it be cases we would have or other trends across the country or internationally. So we will stay in touch with our local Medical Health Officer, as we always do, and we will update the board on those circumstances. And they know it’s their responsibility to ensure that the plan works for whatever the circumstance might be.”