Ontario doesn’t require vaccines in schools. But science advisers, school board are pushing for shots

·4 min read

The Toronto school board says unvaccinated staff will soon be put on unpaid leave, as it maintains a more stringent line on vaccinations than the Ontario government.

The deadlines the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) announced in an email Wednesday were a delay on its original plan, while Premier Doug Ford remains committed to making such inoculations voluntary — for education staff and students.

“We understand vaccination is a deeply personal decision, however, due to the serious health threat COVID-19 presents to the public, this must be balanced against the board’s obligations to protect the health and safety of its employees and students,” TDSB director of education Colleen Russell-Rawlins said in the email.

The country’s biggest school board was one of two big players in Ontario’s education system this week responding more stridently than the Ford government to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the province’s science advisory table saying a school-based vaccination program would be one of the best ways to increase uptake of Ontario’s COVID-19 jabs for children and youth.

Health Minister Christine Elliott answered that call by saying schools would be a likely setting for vaccinating five- to 11-year-olds once a pediatric vaccine is approved for use, but perhaps not during school hours.

“Some of them may be on weekends or in the evenings because I think a lot of parents, if you’re speaking about vaccinating a five-year-old, most parents would want to be with their child,” she said, according to The Canadian Press.

Schools in Ontario already require, and in some cases administer, vaccinations for a string of childhood diseases as a condition of going to primary or secondary school in the province, but Ford has so far not indicated his government would look to add a COVID-19 jab to that list, which includes diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, meningitis, and whooping cough.

Previously, the TDSB said any of its staffers still unvaccinated as of Nov. 1 would be placed on a “non-disciplinary administrative leave of absence without pay” effective Nov. 2.

Now, staff members have until Nov. 21 to get vaccinated and must pass two rapid antigen tests a week until then. If it's the first dose of a COVID vaccine, they have a month to get their second, and after that, any unvaccinated staff will be placed on unpaid leave.

So far, more than 88.5 per cent of the TDSB’s 40,000 staff members are compliant with the procedure, the board said.

Just over half of Canadian parents plan to immediately vaccinate their kids when a pediatric dose becomes available, according to a recent Angus Reid poll, while 23 per cent said they would never give their kids a COVID-19 vaccine, and 18 per cent said they would wait.

The national rate of vaccine hesitancy was pulled higher due to 30 per cent of parents in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Quebec saying they're not planning to vaccinate their children. Around 15 per cent of parents would decline it in Ontario, British Columbia, and Atlantic Canada.

The Science Table, which delivers a consensus opinion from a collection of medical and scientific experts to cabinet, says other strategies to ensure the highest possible youth uptake include the recommendations of health-care providers, reminder and recall systems, and public health communications campaigns, the group said in a brief published late Tuesday.

“School-based vaccination programs are a high-impact and effective approach for increasing uptake that addresses many practical issues,” the group said, including reach, convenience, accessibility, and equity.

“Canadian schools are familiar locations for rolling out a number of youth vaccines (e.g., hepatitis B, human papillomavirus (HPV), and meningococcal vaccines),” it added, noting in-school vaccination programs had not historically been used for younger age groups but could be possible with the help of local public health units.

It said any efforts to encourage vaccination among younger people need to follow these key principles: build and leverage trust, avoid one-size-fits-all approaches, and ensure special considerations for reaching at-risk populations such as the precariously housed, as well as for Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities.

Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer

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