WELLINGTON COUNTY – While local school board officials are supportive of the province’s new vaccination policy, some teachers’ unions are frustrated by the short notice.
On Aug. 17, the Ontario government revealed new vaccine policies for high-risk settings including schools, retirement homes, women’s shelters, congregate settings and ambulance services.
Under the new policy, individuals who work in these settings are required to provide proof of full vaccination against COVID-19, have a medical reason for not being vaccinated, or complete a vaccination “education session.”
The government also noted individuals who do not provide proof of full vaccination will be required to complete regular testing.
The new policy must be implemented in high-risk settings no later than Sept. 7.
David Del Duca, president of the Wellington Unit for the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), said he supports the province’s policy.
“I think mandatory vaccinations for all those in healthcare and education sectors is critical for maintaining healthy workplaces for all those, especially those that can’t get vaccinated,” he explained.
“We all known that children under the age of 12 aren’t eligible currently to receive the vaccination and so for teachers who are going to be constantly exposed to non-vaccinated children, it’s critical that as many staff as possible are vaccinated.”
Del Duca noted that while he’s in support of the announcement, it should have come much sooner.
“I think the bottom line is there has to be a strong enough message that vaccinations should be mandatory for all education workers and then the second really critical piece is that there has to be enough time to implement that and I think they missed that mark,” he said.
“We are in the middle of August. We have just a few weeks before we get back to school and so for teachers who may not be vaccinated yet, are on the fence, or are interested in getting it, have now been given this mandate.”
He explained the announcement doesn’t allot enough time to get two vaccine doses before school starts, nor does it provide enough time for staff choosing not to get vaccinated to participate in an education program.
Del Duca added for those who are not able to get vaccinated due to medical reasons, the union will work to ensure they are protected when they re-enter the classroom.
“I don’t think it reaches the bar that I would set for enough,” he explained. “But the more important piece is that they’ve missed the deadline.
He also noted there are still important parts missing from the mandate, including proper ventilation and smaller class sizes to allow for proper social distancing.
“There are parts that are good … I think we’re moving in the right direction. I just think we’re a little bit late,” he concluded.
Jennifer Hesch, vice president of the Upper Grand Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario (EFTO), said the union is in full support of the provincial announcement.
“Our concerns with the provincial policy is that it fell short of what we were hoping for,” Hesch explained.
“There were few details and we’re three weeks short of school starting.”
She added, “It’s something the government should have provided direction and detail on sooner,” noting extra PPE should be provided for those who aren’t vaccinated and enhanced safety accommodations should be made.
Getting back to school
Welling Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) trustee chair Vikki Dupuis said she’s supportive of the announcement, adding anything that makes it safer to get back to school is a plus.
“The in and out of the last two years has been so difficult for kids and families,” she explained.
“Some do really well, some do well at times, some do better than others. It’s not a one size fits all in terms of education.
“So I do think getting them back into school is more normal and I think it’s a big plus for kids.”
Dupuis added she’s fairly confident the majority of the board’s staff have already been vaccinated, emphasizing the importance of having a return to in-person learning.
“I am just so happy that the kids are going back and if this puts us in an even better spot to stay open and keep kids there for their well-being and education, I’m 100 per cent for that.”
Prior to the provincial announcement, Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) trustee Linda Busuttil began preparing a draft motion to go to the board calling for a strategy on vaccinations to ensure a safe school setting.
“Essentially the motion was to request and direct the staff to start those conversations … to see what we can do but if it’s coming out provincially then everyone will be on the same page,” she explained.
Busuttil, who’s also a board member with the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA), began looking into the issue the week before the announcement came after seeing a similar motion from Toronto District School Board.
“Obviously, we want workplaces to be as safe as possible for staff and for students,” she explained.
“We want parents to be reassured that we’re thinking about this. This is something that we’re aware of, we hear and we’re going to act on. We’re here to advocate.
Busuttil noted she recognizes the short timeline given by the province to put a strategy in place.
“It’s a pretty tight timeline to put together a policy, to have those conversations,” she said.
“Three weeks is not a lot of time to turn this around and implement.”
Busuttil said she will be holding on to her motion and waiting to see what comes out of the provincial policy.
“I am looking forward to a comprehensive and fulsome policy from the province,” she said.
“As a trustee I know I will be looking at the document when it comes out to see if there is more that needs to be done and would bring forward any additional motions at that time.”
In an email statement from UGDSB, Heather Loney, spokesperson for UGDSB, said board staff are waiting for further guidance from the province so that they can begin developing and implementing a plan.
She added the board is confident that its schools are safe places to work and learn.
“Through our partnership with Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health we know that vaccinations are an important measure in getting through this pandemic as a community,” Loney said in the email statement.
“A vaccination plan for staff is just one of the many layers of protection that will be in place at Upper Grand schools, such as masking for all grades, enhancements to ventilation and air filtration, and health and safety protocols in schools.”
An Aug. 20 UGDSB press release noted upgrades to ventilation and filtration systems began during the 2020-21 school year and will continue for the 2021-22 school year.
The board will be assessing all ventilation systems prior to the start of the school year to determine where upgrades are required.
Loney said once the board has a full understanding of the requirements from the ministry’s guidance for the vaccination plan, it will work to use it’s existing structures and systems to meet the Sept. 7 deadline.
Student vaccination rates
As the return to school nears, the percentage UGDSB, WCDSB and Emmanuel Christian High School students with at least one vaccine dose is 77.4%.
According to Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health’s website, as of Aug. 20, the UGDSB has 77.6% of its students vaccinated with one dose and 68.5% fully vaccinated.
The WCDSB sits at 79.6% and 71.3% respectfully.