P.E.I.'s Child and Youth Advocate Marvin Bernstein is critical of the way the province handled its plan to protect Island children from COVID-19 while sending them back to classrooms this fall.
Bernstein said his office received an embargoed copy of the province's back-to-school plan only about 90 minutes before that plan was released to the public, allowing no time to provide feedback on the plan, which he said even with amendments still does not provide adequate safeguards for Island schoolchildren.
He said the protective measures put in place for unvaccinated children lag behind those in place in long-term care facilities, or to screen people crossing the border.
Surely the health, the safety, the wellbeing of our children and youth should take priority over the privacy interests of the teachers. — Marvin Bernstein
"We've taken more stringent measures in terms of protecting seniors … we've talked about tourism and protecting the borders," said Bernstein. "So why should our children and youth be relegated to second-class status?"
At the top of Bernstein's list of suggested changes to the plan is that vaccinations for teachers be mandatory.
There was no requirement in the province's initial plan for schools to track the vaccination status of school staff, much less to make vaccinations mandatory.
This coming Monday, the province will roll out a vaccinate-or-test policy for school and pre-school staff, and for other workers in group homes and at the provincial jail, who come into close contact with vulnerable populations.
Health of students 'should take priority'
Bernstein is also questioning why the Public Schools Branch didn't begin asking staff about their vaccination status until Sept. 3, along with the decision to make that staff vaccination survey anonymous.
"Surely the health, the safety, the wellbeing of our children and youth should take priority over the privacy interests of the teachers," he said. "This is a pressing issue, and I don't think that there should have been so much weight given to the summer vacation period for teachers to be non-intrusive, when in fact there were serious issues at play."
Appearing before P.E.I.'s Standing Committee on Education and Economic Development this week, Minister of Education Natalie Jameson cited privacy concerns on the issue of school staff and their vaccination status, and said her office would consult with the province's privacy commissioner.
This week the privacy commissioner's office told CBC News that public bodies like the Public Schools Branch are authorized under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to collect personal health information from staff — including vaccination status — but with limits on how the information can be used.
UPEI and Holland College are currently collecting vaccination information from staff and students.
Bernstein said not only should there have been consultation with his office, but with children and youth themselves.
There is a youth advisory committee attached to his office he said government should have spoken with.