When a local hospital asked Toronto principal George Vlahos if it could set up a vaccine clinic at his school for the surrounding high-rises, he responded with an enthusiastic affirmative and a request of his own: Could his staff attend the pop-up event too?
Heartened by the response, he nudged some more: How about the parents of the children at his school?
A line snaked around Secord Elementary School in the city’s east end last Tuesday as hundreds of school staff, families and community members waited to be vaccinated – a testament, parents and teachers say, of Mr. Vlahos’s extraordinary efforts over the past year to push for some semblance of normalcy for his students.
Health care workers have been rightfully called heroes during the pandemic. But educators like Mr. Vlahos have also been quietly working behind the scenes and doing heroic work in their corners of the country.
“He’s got very bold ideas, and he’s not afraid to bend the rules for the good of the community,” said Yona Nestel, co-chair of Secord’s parent council.
Schools – the heart of most communities – are closed to in-person learning across Ontario, which makes them ideal locations for all-day vaccine sites. About 1,400 people were vaccinated in Secord’s school gymnasium last week after Mr. Vlahos sent an e-mail blast, and a follow-up reminder, in the days leading up to the one-day clinic. Parent council members organized to drop flyers at the apartment buildings that flank the school.
Mr. Vlahos worked with Michael Garron Hospital to make sure his staff were vaccinated early, so they could return home and teach their online classes. He got his jab a few days beforehand at a local pharmacy.
Parents walked to the school in small groups, some with their children in tow. They waved as teachers left the gymnasium, and chatted with friends. Mr. Vlahos also invited the families who had opted for virtual learning this year.
“I took a lot of pride that day in my school,” he said.
Mr. Vlahos’s efforts to keep the community safe stretch beyond the one-day clinic.
In the summer, when families and educators were anxious about returning to the classroom, he and the parent council worked to create outdoor learning spaces for the fall and winter terms. Evidence shows that outdoor spread of COVID-19 is low. The school had tree stumps that were donated for students to sit on. Blackboards were attached to the fence. Mr. Vlahos bought fish-cleaning tables, which were hooked up to the school’s outdoor water hose to create makeshift sinks.
Through the winter, teachers would take their classes outside for an average of 2½ hours a day. There were warm clothes on hand for those who needed them. Gym classes were outside.
“There are people out there that are really education heroes, that have really weathered the storm of the past 15 months,” Ms. Nestel said of her principal’s work through the summer and into the school year. “The guy is so positive. He finds a solution to every problem. It’s been so refreshing.”
Mr. Vlahos was humble at hearing this kind of praise. He said he would often walk out to the yard to listen to his students laughing and playing. “I had to do what I had to do to keep the school safe and keep kids learning, keep kids happy, healthy, and the same thing for my staff. It worked very well.”
Another parent, Eden Hagos, said she was not sure when she or her partner would have been vaccinated, if not for Mr. Vlahos’s efforts. Ms. Hagos has four children, two of whom attend Secord.
She was in line with one of her children just before 7:30 on Tuesday morning. Her ticket number said she was the 377th person in line. Her son in junior kindergarten got a chance to wave to his teacher as she left the gym. Three hours later, both Ms. Hagos and her partner had received their first dose of the vaccine.
“It demonstrates how crucial public schools are in our communities,” she said. “It’s more than just a place for our kids to go and learn.”
Ms. Hagos said she was grateful to Michael Garron Hospital for recognizing the need to make vaccines accessible to her community and to Mr. Vlahos for pushing for staff and parents to be included.
Michelle Bennett, a Grade 5 teacher who was vaccinated with her first dose that morning, said Mr. Vlahos has gone beyond the work of a typical principal. “He was thinking of the staff and the community. It really wasn’t about him at all.”
For Mr. Vlahos, though, getting his community vaccinated meant that one day his students could return to the school building. “It was important that we make a small dent in the battle against COVID. How are we going to get back to opening up our schools and getting our lives back without the vaccine?
“This was a big deal for me, and for Secord, to make sure our families had access to it.”
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