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New Westminster school district still discussing potential vaccine mandate

Discussions about mandatory vaccination for teachers and school staff are taking place behind closed doors
COVID vaccination
Will New Westminster school staff be required to get COVID-19 vaccines? The issue is still being discussed behind closed doors.

Discussions about a possible vaccine mandate for New Westminster school staff are continuing behind closed doors – but the community will be told as soon as a decision is reached.

That was the word from school board chair Gurveen Dhaliwal at the Oct. 26 board meeting, held virtually via Webex. She said the board recognizes that the issue is one “of great interest” in the community.

She said the New Westminster school district has received guidance from the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association that discussions about a potential vaccine mandate are appropriately dealt with in closed meetings.

“We don’t discuss labour relations in a public forum. They will happen in camera, and we will share with the community the decision we have made,” Dhaliwal said.

Cyrus Sy, speaking on behalf of the district parent advisory council, said parents “very much await” a decision by the local board. He reminded trustees that a vaccine policy for staff was one of the requests DPAC made to the board last month with regard to COVID-19 health and safety.

“We are disappointed that this is not a provincial mandate,” he said, but he noted that local districts have been given the freedom to adopt the measure.

Janet Kinneard, representing CUPE Local 409 (the union that represents school support staff), said CUPE’s policy is that vaccines are the best prevention against COVID – but that doesn’t imply support for mandatory vaccination.

“We’re supporting policies, but not mandates,” she said.

She said CUPE wants to see options provided for employees who might not choose to be vaccinated, such as leave without pay, alternative work settings, or increased use of safety equipment such as personal protective equipment or Plexiglas barriers.

Sarah Wethered, president of the New Westminster Teachers’ Union, did not speak to the issue at the Oct. 26 meeting. However, at the previous operations committee meeting held Oct. 14, she reminded the board that the B.C. Teachers’ Federation “would not oppose” a vaccine mandate.

“However, we would oppose one if there were not exceptions for medical and other exemptions, such as religious reasons why people could not take vaccine,” she said. “Teacher privacy needs to be considered as well and taken into account.”

Parents speak out about vaccine, mask mandates

A number of parents also spoke to the issue during the public comment and question period at the Oct. 26 meeting.

Among those vocally opposed to the idea of vaccine mandates was Ryan Jobb.

“I’m 100% against mandatory masks K to 12, I’m 100% against mandatory vaccine for children K to 12, as well as mandatory vaccines for our teachers,” he said, adding he’s also against mandatory testing. “I just want you guys to know that there’s a large group of parents out there that are against all of this.”

(Note: There have been no discussions about making vaccines mandatory for children in schools; the discussion is focused only on staff.)

Another parent, logged in to the meeting as Tanya M., told trustees a vaccine mandate would be “discriminatory and unlawful.”

“I think the line hasn’t been drawn in the sand for enough people yet,” she said. “That’s coming soon.”

Parent Sue Kenny, however, offered her thanks to the board for adhering to provincial health guidelines, such as those around masking. She also offered thanks to those parents who have their children wear masks in class, even if they don’t personally support the measure.

“They’re helping to save my kid’s life. My kid is immunocompromised, and should she develop COVID, we don’t know what her prognosis would be,” Kenny said. “You think about those other people that are vulnerable and are not safe. … You’re helping to keep my kid safer, and I deeply, deeply appreciate that from the bottom of my heart, so thank you.”

A parent, identified simply as Leanne, told trustees that she, too, has an immune-compromised child. She pointed out that vaccines have been available to teachers for several months and that a very high number are already vaccinated.

“With a very small percentage left of teachers that have chosen to exercise their charter rights and freedoms to not take a medical procedure, for whatever reason, I’m wondering why this mandate would be so important,” she said. “If they have declined this long, they probably have a very good reason.”

But parent Anne Whitmore asked the board to continue with its commitment to pursue a vaccine policy for staff.

“There is a small but very vocal group that is not pro-mask or pro-vaccine,” she said. “I hope this does not sway the board in what the majority of parents in this district would like.”

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