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People wait in line for a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot in Toronto, on Dec. 22, 2021.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario will fast-track booster shots for education and child-care workers – answering calls from doctors and educators to prioritize vaccines for school staff before students return to in-person learning.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said on Thursday that the government is working with public-health units to set aside booster appointments specifically for education staff and child-care workers.

Starting Friday, staff in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area will have “planned access to vaccines” at the International Centre in Mississauga after the school day, Mr. Lecce said in a statement. He said the government would work with other public-health units to “urgently set up more clinics across Ontario.”

Education staff eligible to book include teachers, custodians, administrators and school-bus drivers.

All provinces except Saskatchewan have extended the holiday break or moved students to virtual learning. Doctors and school officials have said it’s a chance to prioritize workers for boosters as an additional layer of protection against the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Most provinces have opened up boosters to anyone 18 and over, but residents have encountered long waits or problems securing appointments in their area. Quebec prioritized several groups for booster shots, including school staff.

In the absence of government efforts, some pharmacists, family doctors and hospitals have set aside appointments for educators and child-care workers. CHEO, a pediatric health care and research centre in Ottawa, will provide an after-school clinic at the hospital on Friday specifically for teachers, education staff and child-care workers in Eastern Ontario. The hospital said it expected to open more clinics next week.

Toronto Public Health also said on Thursday that four vaccination clinics will have appointments specifically for school staff.

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While the onset of the Omicron variant has led to many more breakthrough infections among vaccinated people, data show that boosters substantially improve protection against infection, which could help slow the spread of the virus and reduce staff absenteeism. Doctors say provinces have a chance now to shore up protections, including masks, ventilation, and vaccinations, before children return to school buildings.

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said she was pleased the government had acted on the education sector’s recommendation to give priority to school staff. She said her organization would work with the province “in ensuring schools are as safe as possible for students and staff upon return.”

Karen Brown, head of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said that while the news of the boosters was welcome, it was “unfortunate” that educators had to push for priority. She said teachers were on winter break for two weeks and the government could have opened boosters specifically to them during that time.

“I think our members need to have as many levels of protection as possible,” she said.

The government has also promised to provide N95 masks to staff in schools and daycares, and will deploy 3,000 HEPA filter units to schools, in addition to the 70,000 already in place.

Ms. Brown said she’s not sure these measures will be ready by the time classes resume for in-person learning. The government has said schools are closed until at least Jan. 17, and students are attending virtually.

“I’m not confident that everything will be in place by that time,” Ms. Brown said. “We shouldn’t be scrambling.”

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