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Aaron Genest on the deck of his company’s office in Saskatoon, on Sept. 15. Genest’s Grade 10 son sat in three different classrooms over three days at a Saskatoon high school with a student who had tested positive for COVID-19.Liam Richards/The Canadian Press

Aaron Genest’s Grade 10 son sat in three different classrooms at a Saskatoon high school over three days with a student who later tested positive for COVID-19.

“Conversations between kids being what it was, it was discovered that it was somebody that had sat beside him and was unvaccinated,” said Genest, who added that the student hadn’t been wearing a mask because it wasonly required in elementary classes at the city’s public schools at that time. That has since been changed to include all grades.

Genest said he received a letter notifying him of the positive case, but there was no mandate for his son to self-isolate.

“The same letter was sent to all parents in all classrooms that essentially said send your kid back to school and monitor for symptoms.”

Saskatchewan does not require pupils who are close contacts of other students with COVID-19 to self-isolate unless the exposure happened at a party or other social gathering with peers outside school.

“But if they’re exposed at school, they can continue to come to school and they just can’t participate in extracurricular activities, and they have to wear a mask except when they’re eating,” said Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation.

What makes it more complicated is that students are doing their own contact tracing, because of a lack of resources and emergency funding, Maze said. In most cases, schools aren’t told who has COVID-19, so staff are unable to enforce any restrictions.

Saskatoon Public Schools – the largest division in Saskatchewan – said the Saskatchewan Health Authority does not share the identity of a diagnosed student, so there’s no way to know who is positive, let alone a close contact.

“It’s confusing, illogical and very difficult to put into practice,” said Maze, who wants mandatory masking in all schools and proof of COVID-19 vaccination for staff and eligible students.

The Ministry of Health did not respond to requests for comment, but a public health order says close contact pupils are exempt from self-isolation requirements to “reduce the societal burden associated with parental or guardian absence from work and to ensure children can continue in-person learning.”

Genest’s son tested negative for COVID-19, but the self-isolation exemption in schools still caused the father worry.

“I have a six-year-old at home who is not vaccinated, and there was a possibility my son could have carried it home to my younger son, and then the consequences could have been different,” Genest said. “So that was upsetting.”

He believes school divisions should be trusted to know who has COVID-19 so they can be more pro-active in their risk management.

“It’s perfectly reasonable the health status of individual children is shared with the school,” Genest said. “We do that if they have lice.”

Saskatchewan faces its largest wave since the pandemic began and has some of the highest weekly case rates in the country.

On Wednesday, the province reported 475 new cases, 22 per cent of them in children under the age of 12, who are not eligible for a vaccine. Two children were reported in hospital with the virus.

Government data shows there were more than 140 cases in schools within the first two weeks of classes resuming, as well as 14 active outbreaks in daycares across the province.

“We’re seeing more cases this year in schools and daycares than we did last school year,” said Margi Corbett, an advocate with Safe Schools Saskatchewan, a Facebook group of nearly 12,000 parents and teachers who track COVID-19 cases in schools.

Corbett said the group has been urging there be mandatory vaccinations and a provincewide mask mandate in all schools, but she said letters to Premier Scott Moe and the ministers of health and education are going unanswered.

“I’m terribly worried,” said Corbett who has two grandchildren. “I don’t know how else to describe it.”

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