Dr. Henry nudging northern, Interior communities to adopt vaccine mandates for schools

So far, no school district in B.C. has opted for a vaccine mandate for staff.

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School districts in northern and Interior B.C. communities are now being encouraged to implement vaccine mandates for staff due to high COVID-19 case counts.

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“This week in the Interior there have been three outbreaks in schools, so yes, we are very supportive of mandates in those areas, particularly because of the risk in that community right now,” Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told reporters on Tuesday.

But B.C. School Trustees Association president Stephanie Higginson said school boards also have to consider staffing levels and a lack of resources before deciding whether to adopt any mandates.

“What impact will this have on staffing levels and the ability to provide educational programming? Losing two per cent of staff would be a big deal,” she said.

Last month, the ministry of education issued guidelines for school districts to create a vaccine policy.

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The document includes recommendations on collecting data, aligning health orders, human resources policies and collective agreements, as well as researching how to protect against legal challenges and ensuring they have enough staff “in the event that a significant number of staff require accommodations, alternative measures, or are placed on leave without pay.”

So far, no school district in B.C. has opted for a vaccine mandate for staff. School districts in Vancouver, Surrey , New Westminster and Abbotsford are among those that have decided against such mandates.

“They have weighed the risk of implementing (a vaccine mandate) against the ability to offer educational programming,” said Higginson. “Both Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health have told them that they don’t see that a vaccine mandate would have a substantial impact on the safety of the schools.”

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Higginson said advice from health officials is one of the most important factors in deciding whether a vaccine mandate is necessary, but she said school boards will have to weigh many other factors to determine the best way to continue to keep schools open. She added that boards are also looking at data that explains the source of increased COVID cases in schools.

“We are seeing increased cases in schools as the world has opened up. Kids are going to birthday parties or they are on the same hockey team and are not being exposed at school,” she said. “And these boards are asking, ‘Are these exposures in our staff or in students younger than 12? And, if it’s the under-12s, it is worth vaccinating all of our staff?’”

School districts have been advised by the education ministry that they will have to pay the cost of testing to accommodate staff who cannot be vaccinated for health or religious reasons. Higginson said that may also be a factor in whether a vaccine mandate is the best use of resources.

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“I have heard that the major issue that we are hearing provincially is that there is a concern with our staff and students’ mental health and well-being,” she said. “So where is the best place to put resources to ensure schools stay open? A vaccine mandate has to be a last resort.”

Higginson expects districts will be making “very difficult decisions” in the coming weeks.

“It is a big challenge. It’s going to be thoughtful. People want to make sure there are no unintended consequences and health authority advice is going to have an impact on how people move forward with this.”


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