With the arrival soon of COVID-19 vaccines for kids under age 12, schools across Canada are once again a battleground over how best to protect teachers and students.
In British Columbia, parents are frustrated and confused about vaccination requirements that leave out teachers.
The B.C. government said last month that its public sector workers will have to be vaccinated to come to work. What to do about those who refuse has yet to be explained. Anyone working on a B.C. ferry, even if their work is on the outside decks, must be vaccinated. Ditto workers at BC Hydro. Also same for MLAs, who must be vaccinated to sit in the Legislature.
The public health officer has also ordered that coaches of youth sports must be vaccinated.
But teachers do not have to be vaccinated. The B.C. government has left the decision up to each school board, and as of last week, some of British Columbia’s largest have declined to make the order. The overall rate of teacher vaccination is considered high, so risk in the classroom doesn’t require a mandate, the boards have concluded, although the Ministry of Health could not say what the vaccination rate is by region.
That has parents – and some board officials – frustrated at the lack of vigilance in a school compared to many other workplaces. Parents especially find it a head-scratcher that their child’s weekend soccer coach has to be vaccinated, but the school coach for phys-ed does not.
B.C.’s Education Minister said last week the province declined to issue a directive to school boards because the public health officer hasn’t made an order. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry responded tersely that she has not issued orders for other workplaces either.
Last week, the Vancouver, Surrey, New Westminster and Abbotsford school boards decided against a vaccination mandate for teachers.
Reporter Xiao Xu uncovered a document last week that might help explain some of the reluctance. The document is a presentation officials at the Fraser Health Authority made to schools boards in that district. It isn’t exactly cheerleading for a mandate.
It notes that of the 2,009 school-associated cases of COVID-19 in Fraser schools, there were 104 clusters, and staff were the carriers in 11.5 per cent of them -- 12 clusters. That includes staff who were vaccinated and un-vaccinated. The conclusion is that students, not staff, drive most of the transmission.
The document noted the benefits of a vaccination mandate would be to potentially increase coverage.
As cons, the document notes that a mandate might have only a limited impact on reducing transmission, and it could entrench opposition to the vaccine.
But at the bottom of the presentation, the health authority notes that school boards that proceed will not get extra resources to implement or enforce a mandate and there would be no money for establishing testing or antigen tests.
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.”
He noted costs are a real concern, and could affect 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.”
Still, the Fraser Health document makes it very clear that the vast majority of transmission in schools comes from students. A vaccine for those under 12 should change that equation.
It’s also unclear whether B.C. will require younger kids to show proof of vaccination before going to movies or restaurants. Right now, they can’t.
Alberta and Manitoba have moved to exempt younger children from vaccination requirements that adults need to follow.
Alberta Health said the province’s vaccination passport system, which the government calls a “restrictions exemption program,” will not apply to young children. People in Alberta must be fully vaccinated, or have had a recent negative COVID-19 test at their own expense, to access non-essential services such as restaurants and indoor events like concerts or professional hockey games.
“While we wait for Health Canada to determine if vaccines are approved for children 5 to 11, there are currently no plans to extend vaccine requirements under the restrictions exemption program to this age group,” spokesperson Lisa Glover said in a statement.
The Manitoba government said it would eschew vaccination requirements for young children. “At this time, when children under the age of 12 become eligible for the vaccine, the proof of vaccine requirement will not apply,” it said in a statement.
Quebec said it would assess its passport system, which applies to people 13 and older, when officials deliver immunization recommendations for those under 12. Ontario said it will provide additional details on its requirements in the coming weeks.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.