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A woman uses her computer keyboard to type while surfing the internet in North Vancouver, B.C., on Dec. 19, 2012. The Regina Public Schools division announced students will take classes from home starting next Monday until Friday when schools break for the holidays as classrooms deal with a spike in COVID-19 infections.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said Monday his province was close to the “finish line” of its battle against COVID-19, with the imminent arrival of Canada’s first vaccine shipments.

As the province deals with the toughest spread of the COVID-19 pandemic it has seen yet, Moe said it is ready to receive doses of Pfizer’s vaccine that are set to arrive next week.

He said Saskatchewan has an ultralow freezer in place needed to store the vaccine, which is pending approval from Health Canada.

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“This is the finish line,” Moe said Monday, as health officials announced another 274 cases of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan and an additional death.

“You have to start finishing at some point in time and I don’t see any other finish line of any significance outside of access to a vaccine.”

Moe’s Saskatchewan Party government is set to reveal its vaccine distribution plan Tuesday.

The Premier said vaccinations will happen in phases as more doses are expected to arrive throughout 2021.

Saskatchewan will start with inoculating health-care workers and its most vulnerable residents, such as those living in long-term care homes, Moe said.

Details will also be provided on expected turnaround times from when vaccine dosages are delivered to how long until people will be able to get in line for a shot.

“It will be as quickly as physically possible,” Moe said.

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Opposition NDP Leader Ryan Meili expressed concern that Moe’s focus on vaccine distribution is an attempt to “change the channel” from his government’s present challenge of trying to contain the spread of the virus.

On Monday, hospitalizations rose to 143 people, eight more than the day before. Of those patients, 26 were in intensive care.

The optimism around a COVID-19 vaccine arrived the same day one of Saskatchewan’s largest school divisions decided to move to remote learning as classrooms deal with a spike in infections and administrators struggle to find enough healthy staff to work.

Regina Public Schools, which runs 57 schools with about 24,000 students, said all grades will take classes from home next week, the final week before schools break for the holidays.

Students will continue learning remotely when the break ends on Jan. 4, and the plan is to have them to return to classrooms Jan. 11.

The division cited a 24 per cent rise in employee absence days since the school year started and a “chronic shortfall of replacement staff due to more employee absences and a reduced pool of available substitute staff.”

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The president of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation believes the return to remote learning could have been avoided if the Ministry of Education made masks mandatory earlier in the school year, instead of leaving that up to school boards.

“If government had paid more attention to social distancing in schools and had spent a bit of money on renting other facilities so that classrooms could spread out … then we might not have needed to get to where we are today,” said Patrick Maze.

Education Minister Dustin Duncan said sending students home reflects the reality of living in a pandemic, and highlighted how COVID-19 transmission in schools remained low.

No added measures were under consideration on how to recruit more teachers or encourage more substitutes to put their name forward to prevent future staffing shortages, he said.

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