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New West school board won't host open session on vaccine mandate

Trustee Mary Lalji suggested an 'open collaboration session' with parents after criticism from community
Vaccine mandate
The New Westminster school board won't revisit the issue of mandatory vaccines for staff in an open meeting after making its decision behind closed doors.

The New Westminster school board will not hold a special open session with parents to discuss the issue of mandatory vaccines for school staff.

Trustee Mary Lalji raised the suggestion at the board’s Nov. 9 operations committee meeting, after a handful of parents spoke up to object to the board’s decision not to adopt a vaccination mandate for the district’s teachers and staff.

Parents had asked for more insight into why the trustees made the decision they did. The vote was made in a closed session and announced in a public statement on Oct. 27.

Lalji made a motion to have the board hold “a true and open collaboration session” with parents where it could provide information on how and why it arrived at that decision, as well as discussing new updates from provincial and federal health authorities about COVID-19. She suggested having an open-format meeting on Nov. 16 or at another mutually agreeable date for the district parent advisory council (DPAC).

“Whether I agree with it or I don’t, I am here to represent the people I serve,” she said. “If the parents are requesting this, then it is something this board needs to do, whether we say, ‘Yes, we will carry on the way we are going forward’ or we say, ‘No, all staff must be double-vaxxed’ – that’s up to the board.”

But her idea didn't find any takers at the board table.

Trustee Danielle Connelly, who chairs the operations committee, reminded Lalji that she had had the chance to be part of the discussion about the vaccine mandate but that Lalji was not present at the in-camera meeting where it was discussed.

B.C. boards all discussing issue in camera

Board chair Gurveen Dhaliwal told parents that all school boards in B.C., and not just New Westminster, are holding their discussions on the issue in-camera based on direction from the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association.

“I really want to make it clear to our parents, and of course our community, when we discuss things in camera, we do follow the guidelines that are part of the School Act,” she said, noting those situations are also outlined in the board’s policies. “We never discuss items that would not be legally required to be in camera. We always do those in a public setting. … We’re not discussing random pieces in closed settings.”

Dhaliwal said the board would not revisit the mandatory vaccine debate in an open meeting.

The school board’s policy handbook outlines that: “There are times when public interest is best-served by private discussion of specific issues in ‘in-camera’ sessions. The board believes it is necessary to protect individual privacy and the board's own position in negotiating either collective agreements or contracts and therefore expects to go in-camera for issues dealing with individual students, individual employees, land, labour, litigation or negotiation.”

Trustee Dee Beattie agreed that, because the issue of mandatory vaccinations falls under labour relations, the discussion was appropriately done behind closed doors.

Committee, DPAC meetings are part of the process

Trustee Maya Russell said she appreciated the spirit of Lalji’s motion.

“I appreciate very much the sentiment behind the motion, but I can’t support it,” she said.

Russell said the board already has opportunities for public discussion with parents and other community members at its open committee meetings, where members of the public can ask questions and provide input. She acknowledged some people might be “dissatisfied” with the outcome but said the committee meetings are the appropriate forum for those comments.

Russell pointed the New Westminster DPAC is the organization that represents parents and said trustees can also attend those meetings to have further discussion with parents. She added she’d be happy to share her own thinking on the vaccine mandate issue with DPAC.

Connelly said the board has continued to provide COVID updates at operations committee meetings and noted the school district superintendent has been working to get the Fraser Health medical health officer to speak to DPAC – though that has not yet happened.

“I do hope people will continue to bring their concerns and questions to the board,” she said.

In the end, Lalji’s motion found no support among other trustees.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
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