Nearly 300 unvaccinated educators and staff at the country’s largest school board have been granted temporary exemptions to its vaccine mandate, meaning they will not go on an unpaid leave and instead continue teaching and supervising students.
The Toronto District School Board said on Monday that the 288 staff members granted exemptions include special-needs assistants, early childhood educators and lunchroom supervisors, and that it was having difficulty filling these key jobs with temporary staff.
Ryan Bird, the board’s spokesman, said in an interview that staff in these positions play a “critical role” in schools, some of whom supervise the most vulnerable children.
“We needed to make sure that the health and safety of students was taken care of,” Mr. Bird said. “We are actively working to fill these positions, and then we will put them on administrative leave.”
The TDSB was one of a few school boards in the country that required its roughly 40,000 staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, unless they had an approved exemption. The board had said those who don’t comply would face consequences that included a leave of absence without pay or a termination of their employment.
More recently, the board said it would stagger its policy implementation over three weeks, past its Nov. 1 deadline, to process roughly 1,000 requests for medical or creed exemptions and allow unvaccinated staff to get their first dose.
Roughly 90 per cent of TDSB staff are compliant with the board’s policy, which means they are fully vaccinated, partly vaccinated or have received an exemption. The remaining staff members are either seeking an exemption, on a leave of absence or non-compliant, according to the board’s data.
Earlier this month, about 100 teachers and staff, as well as 700 occasional staff, were placed on unpaid leave for failing to disclose their vaccination status.
On Monday, another 330 staff were placed on unpaid leave. That does not include any teachers, Mr. Bird said.
Staff had informed trustees at a board meeting last month that it had hired supply teachers and support staff to fill vacancies. The board had also said it would look to extend the hours of work for support staff, and have a pool of unassigned teachers and staff that could be dispatched to support schools that face shortages.
However, Mr. Bird said on Monday that, like other school boards, “people are not accepting the jobs.”
“It could be day or weeks … until we can secure another staff member to take that position,” he added.
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board also required all educators and staff to receive the first dose no later than Sept. 30 unless they had a medical or religious accommodation. Board spokesman Darcy Knoll said that 53 permanent or casual staff have been placed on unpaid leave.
The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board removed a requirement that employees be fully vaccinated by Nov. 30, although more than 90 per cent of staff are fully vaccinated.
The Ontario government has not mandated COVID-19 vaccines for education workers, although individual school boards are permitted to do so. Instead, the province has asked school boards to have their employees disclose their vaccination status to the employer. Unvaccinated school staff, including those who have received only one dose, are required to conduct three rapid antigen tests a week.
Sue Gowans, a Toronto parent who has been tracking the staff vaccination rates at school boards, said she was disappointed the TDSB had provided exemptions to unvaccinated staff.
“My worry is they’re overwhelmed, and this is a planning problem,” she said. “Vaccine mandates do a lot of public good. And if you’re going to do that, you have to plan for the difficult time in rolling out that mandate. If you don’t, you’re going to have difficulties rolling it out.”
Ms. Gowans was concerned that the board would not find temporary staff to replace the unvaccinated.
“We have to have fully vaccinated staff in hospitals and schools. We need to make those places safe,” she said.
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