New Westminster school trustees are awaiting further provincial direction before going ahead with a vaccine mandate for staff.
Trustees discussed the issue at their Oct. 12 operations committee meeting. They had asked staff to report back to the committee after seeking a legal opinion on the potential ramifications of implementing a vaccine mandate.
Robert Weston, the district’s executive director of human resources, noted the landscape around mandatory vaccinations has been shifting rapidly since trustees made that recommendation at a special meeting on Oct. 1.
Since that time, Weston noted, Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside has announced that the ministry, together with the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association, is convening a provincial advisory committee to consider a “coordinated approach” to the issue and to provide boards with a template to guide mandatory vaccination policies in their school districts.
Weston said that document will be built on the most “diligent” and “comprehensive” legal opinions, with input from a stakeholders group, and he told trustees it’s in the best interests of all school districts to wait to see that document.
He suggested the board should revisit the issue at its next operations committee meeting Nov. 9.
Trustee Danielle Connelly objected to waiting that long, noting that most public sector employers are implementing six-week lead times with their vaccine mandates. Waiting until after Nov. 9 and then adding a six-week lead time onto that, she said, would simply be taking too long.
“We’re all done with this. I’m exhausted; I think everybody else is,” she said. “I can only imagine being a parent who has a child who is not vaccinated yet.”
She suggested the board instead agree to adopt a mandatory vaccination policy as of Nov. 30, which would give it time to adjust as needed following the release of the provincial guidelines.
“I hope in that time the province comes in and does the right thing,” she said.
Connelly said Premier John Horgan’s refusal to implement a provincewide mandate has put school boards in a “really difficult position.”
“What I see is a passing of the financial responsibility and burden, and that is deplorable to me,” she said.
TRUSTEES URGE CAUTION ON MANDATE
Other trustees, however, sounded a cautionary note about moving ahead in advance of the provincial guidance.
“I am totally in favour of mandating this vaccine, but I am concerned that if it’s not done properly we could be walking it back,” trustee Dee Beattie said.
She noted there are many things to consider within a vaccine mandate, such as the duty to accommodate those who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons and how it would fit in with collective agreements.
Trustee Maya Russell suggested the board go along with the staff recommendation to wait until provincial guidance is available. But she said that doesn’t necessarily have to be at the next operations committee meeting, if that information is available sooner than Nov. 9.
She, too, stressed the need for action as soon as possible.
“I am concerned with the rising COVID numbers among children. I am concerned that we do whatever we can do. I’m concerned that staff could potentially be in a position to refuse unsafe work; that’s another piece I think really deserves our attention,” she said.
“I am a passionate supporter of vaccination, and I would hope that everybody can put on their big-person pants and roll up their sleeves and get their shot.”
Trustees agreed to revisit the issue when staff can provide an update in regards to the provincial committee guidelines, either at the Nov. 9 operations committee meeting or at a special board meeting called before that, if the provincial information becomes available sooner.