School boards in B.C. have been told there are no resources available to enforce a vaccine mandate for teachers, and no ability to establish a testing regime for staff who decline to be inoculated against COVID-19.
The advice, contained in a nine-page presentation by the Fraser Health Authority, sheds light on why some of the province’s largest school boards concluded last week that they would not require teachers and other school staff to be vaccinated.
The health authority’s presentation to school boards, dated Oct. 19, is in response to a provincial government decision to leave it up to individual boards to decide whether to make vaccinations obligatory.
The decision by the boards in Vancouver, Surrey, New Westminster and Abbotsford left many parents frustrated and confused as to why school staff would not face the same requirements as workers in other sectors. B.C. government employees are required to be vaccinated, as are workers for BC Ferries and BC Hydro, and even MLAs who sit in the legislature.
Late last month, Health Minister Adrian Dix announced adults coaching youth sports teams would also need to be vaccinated.
“It is beyond belief that the province will mandate that volunteer soccer coaches must be vaccinated, but will not put a similar mandate in for a teacher in a classroom with unvaccinated children,” said Gord Lau, chair of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council.
The Fraser Health Authority presentation said mandating vaccination could prompt more people to get vaccinated and will lower risk in schools. But it added that the “value of mandating vaccination for staff may be limited where community vaccine coverage is already high and schools are following COVID-19 safety plans.”
The presentation ended by noting “public health does not have the resources or the jurisdiction to implement and enforce a school staff vaccine mandate. … Public Health does not have the resources to stand up testing sites/rapid antigen testing in schools.”
Simon Adams, president of Central Okanagan Parent Advisory Council, said many parents don’t understand why teachers and school staff have been put on “a third rail of decision-making.”
“More than anything, what we’re hearing is confusion and a lack of understanding like, why is it working this way?”
Mr. Adams said mandatory vaccine for staff working in schools would be “welcomed and valued.” But he noted costs are a real concern and could end up affecting essential services unless the Ministry of Education is willing to cover them.
“If a board votes in favour of a vaccine mandate, if there are requirements for accommodations, testing regimes, if there are legal costs associated with it, bringing in additional teachers on call to backfill any future vacancies as a result of this, it’s not clear to us that the Ministry of Education has indicated that there’ll be any additional funding to support these new costs.”
Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, has said her union would support a provincewide mandate for its 46,000 members. After the Surrey board announced its decision last Tuesday, she warned the move could have a “chilling effect” on other districts.
Mr. Adams said some parents in the Interior, where vaccination rates are relatively low, are worried their district will follow suit.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside has said her ministry would not bring in a provincewide requirement because the public-health officer has not ordered it.
“Absent a provincial health order that would require mandatory vaccination in our K to 12 sector, we are certainly taking all measures to support high rates of vaccination,” Ms. Whiteside said last week.
Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry later said public health’s job is to provide advice.
“I think what the minister meant to say was that there’s not a PHO order around schools, as there is not for other employment – private industries, other businesses, other areas,” Dr. Henry said.
“I, obviously, am very strongly supportive of making sure that everybody who’s eligible, all of the staff in our school system, are vaccinated as the best protection for them and to make sure that we can keep our schools running and keep our children from getting sick as well.”
Abbotsford’s board said in a news release last week that public-health officials have also noted that a vaccine mandate could potentially exacerbate inequities. They recommended that “school districts use less-invasive measures such as promoting vaccinations among eligible staff and students,” the statement cites.
Dr. Henry said public health has maintained that school districts need to look at all of the positive and negative consequences of a vaccine mandate.
“They need to understand the vaccination rates in their community, in their schools, in their employees,” she said, adding experts are not seeing large outbreaks in schools in many of these communities where those decisions have been made.
According to the number of school exposures published by health authorities on Friday, 27 schools in the Surrey school district (with 74,000 students in total) and 15 schools in Abbotsford (with more than 19,200 students) have active exposures, compared with two in Vancouver (with 50,000 students).
Ms. Whiteside has maintained there is a high vaccination rate among teachers. However, districts and the Ministry of Health said they do not have numbers for unvaccinated staff. A preliminary report released by the BC Teachers’ Federation in late October showed 94 per cent of teachers in the province are fully vaccinated.
In B.C., about 90 per cent of eligible people 12 and older have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and more than 85 per cent have received their second.
Large school districts, including Surrey and Vancouver, said a mandate could also cause them to lose hundreds of employees.
“The issue is filling those vacancies, whether it’s a teacher, a student, support worker, an administrator, a custodian, all of those people are critical to us running our schools and our programs and running them safely,” Vancouver School Board chair Carmen Cho said.
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