Only minutes after the news alert hit Scott Shier’s cellphone, the Winnipeg high school principal was in the office, making an announcement to the entire building: “Sorry for the interruption, but I just want to let staff know that the province has just dropped the age requirement for the COVID vaccine.”
The work of teaching could pause, he told everyone, because of the information his office was sending. Mr. Shier’s office staff composed an e-mail with the number of a pharmacy five minutes from the school, which had openings for anyone aged 40 and older to receive a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. He also included a link for Manitoba’s booking system.
“This is our path back to normalcy. Our teachers have been working so hard since last March. It gives them a breather knowing that they’re hopefully going to be vaccinated,” Mr. Shier said. “It’s the first step for us.”
Ontario lowered its age restriction on Sunday night, making anyone 40 and older eligible for the vaccine and unleashing a wave of weary Gen Xers into the internet booking on portals of pharmacies and grocery chains across the province. British Columbia, Manitoba and Alberta followed suit.
On Monday morning, Mr. Shier did his best to streamline the process for his eligible staff at Maples Collegiate – another story in the emerging oeuvre of Canadians trying to help each other navigate the sometimes-complex vaccine-booking options.
Maples Collegiate has 1,500 students and is located in an area that has a large Filipino population – the most overrepresented ethnic group for COVID-19 cases in Manitoba.
About two-thirds of Mr. Shier’s staff are 40 and older, and many of them became eligible for a vaccine on Monday. School is essential for learning, but also for the social and mental well-being of students, he said. Yet educators were generally not prioritized for vaccines. Mr. Shier wasn’t going to have his staff wait to book appointments until the lunch hour or after the school day ended, which would set them behind thousands of others in the province.
Christine Stark, a physical education teacher, walked over to her husband Ron’s English classroom after hearing the announcement. They were both eligible for the AstraZeneca vaccine, but they had also heard about the risk of rare blood clots associated with the vaccine. They contacted their family doctor, who told them the risk was low and recommended that they sign up for the vaccine.
They booked appointments for Monday afternoon.
Mr. Stark does not consider himself a particularly emotional person. As he sat, physically distanced, from colleagues during his lunch break on Monday, he wept.
“It was a mixture of relief and stress,” he said. “I don’t normally cry, but it was pretty intense.”
The school year has not been easy. To keep class sizes small, students attend every other day. Sports and extracurriculars, which have typically defined the high-school experience, are cancelled. Ms. Stark is learning new ways to interact with her students in physical-education classes.
She paused during an interview on Tuesday, choking back tears: “I should be able to do my job a little better. I don’t feel like I’m teaching as I normally do. It’s hard.”
“It’s been a really, really hard year,” her husband added.
They weren’t surprised, albeit grateful, that Mr. Shier took it upon himself to guide them toward vaccine appointments. “He wants people to feel good about coming to school and he wants kids to be in school – and that’s what we want, too,” Mr. Stark said.
Moments after hearing the announcement and checking her e-mail, Nicole Russell, a science teacher at the school, did not think twice before calling the nearby pharmacy. She walked back into her classroom, grateful to her principal for making the process simple, to celebrate with her students who were just as excited.
She is scheduled to get her first dose on Thursday.
“I was surprised at just how happy I was. I just had this overwhelming feeling of relief,” Ms. Russell said. “I didn’t know how heavy that weight had been on me.”
Mr. Shier said that as more staff received their first dose, he hoped it would bring a “calming effect” to the school through a third wave.
He was to receive his AstraZeneca vaccine after school on Tuesday.
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