People working in New Westminster schools won’t be required to disclose their COVID vaccination status – at least not right now.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry issued a new public health order Jan. 17 that paves the way for school districts to compel all staff to disclose their vaccination status.
But the order won’t have any immediate impact in School District 40.
Superintendent Karim Hachlaf, at the school board’s education committee meeting Tuesday night (Jan. 18), said it’s considered a “passive order” – that is, no action is needed unless the local medical health officer issues a directive. So far, he said, no such communication has taken place in New Westminster.
Education committee chair Dee Beattie said trustees had just received the information themselves and had not yet had a chance to discuss it.
The New West school board previously discussed the possibility of a staff vaccine mandate but, in October 2021, opted not to go ahead.
At the time, school board chair Gurveen Dhaliwal said the school district had relied upon data from public health to make that decision, including statistics showing transmission in schools was being driven by students rather than by staff.
The board also noted New Westminster teachers and school staff are drawn from highly vaccinated communities. As of Jan. 18, B.C. Centre for Disease Control data shows 93% of adults in New Westminster have received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine.
Children 5 to 11 'more likely to be infected'
The text of B.C.’s new 13-page public health order says vaccination is the “single most important preventive measure” a person can take to protect themselves and other members of the community.
“Included among the members of the community who are more likely to be infected are children aged 5 to 11 years. This is because children in this age group have only recently become eligible for vaccination and it will take some time before the members of this group can be fully vaccinated,” the order says.
As of Jan. 18, 58% of five-to-11-year-olds in New West had received their first dose of Pfizer pediatric vaccine. With an eight-week interval between doses, the first children in that age group should be eligible for second doses starting Jan. 24.
“Adults and children who are either particularly vulnerable to infection with SARS-CoV-2 or too young to have received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine depend upon the people with whom they come into contact to protect them from the risk of infection,” the health order says.
The document also acknowledges the pandemic situation in B.C. has changed in recent weeks.
“The Omicron variant has introduced more uncertainty into the course of the pandemic, and the rapid rise in infection rates in British Columbia and the experience in other places have led me to conclude that additional measures are necessary in order to permit the school and public health systems to plan for and respond to clusters and outbreaks of Omicron in schools,” the order says.
Medical health officers, school districts make local decisions
Henry, at a COVID-19 briefing on Jan. 18, described the document as an “enabling order” that allows regional medical health officers to work in partnership with school districts on decisions around potential vaccine mandates.
“It gives MHOs in those school districts an understanding of which schools might be at risk of having closures because of outbreaks, or where there’s transmission, so we can focus attention on those schools,” she said.
Henry said an understanding of staff vaccination status is a “really important step” in determining whether a particular district needs to make vaccination mandatory, noting discussions to that effect have been underway in some Interior districts.
“It really enables the school district to make it very clear that it is a legal mandate, that they are able to ask all staff in that school district to report their vaccination status,” she said.
The Delta school board voted earlier this month to require its staff to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination within six weeks of Jan. 17. Staff in that school district who are unvaccinated or fail to disclose their vaccination status by the deadline will be required to undergo regular rapid testing or take an unpaid leave of absence.
– with files from Ian Jacques, Delta Optimist