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Parents push New Westminster school board to revisit vaccine mandate decision

Trustees stand behind decision not to impose a mandate on teachers and staff, saying a vaccine mandate could lead to more disruption than gain
COVID vaccination
New Westminster teachers and school staff aren't required to be vaccinated – and that isn't sitting well with some parents.

New Westminster school trustees aren’t backing down on their decision not to mandate vaccines for staff – and not all parents are happy about that.

On Oct. 27, the school board issued a public statement saying it had decided not to proceed with the mandate. That decision didn’t sit well with parents who turned out at the board's Nov. 9 operations committee meeting (held virtually via Webex).

Parent Marlayne Metzker questioned the logic of her being required to have a vaccine in order to serve as manager for a youth soccer team – a job that is done outside, for a few hours a week, without close contact with players – while teachers aren’t required to get one to spend days in enclosed spaces with classes full of children.

(The mandate that all adults coaching, managing or assisting with youth sports be vaccinated was imposed by the province in October. However, the province declined to impose a similar provincewide mandate for teachers and school staff and instead passed the issue on to individual school districts to make their own decisions based on guidance from a provincial committee.)

Kathleen Carlsen, chair of the district parent advisory council, said she’s been hearing from many parents who are “really upset” about New Westminster's decision.

“There are so many parents with so many issues who are very unhappy," she told trustees. "It may be an idea to look into this again.”

Parent Laura Kwong, too, questioned whether the board would be willing to revisit the decision in light of new information about the transmissibility of the Delta variant and the fact that 80% to 90% vaccination rates may no longer be high enough to stop the spread of the virus.

Trustee Danielle Connelly, who chairs the operations committee, told parents the board’s decision – which was made in a closed meeting – was based on advice from public health officials.

“We are not epidemiologists; we are not doctors, We are being given information, and we are acting on it accordingly," she said. “Those decisions can change quite rapidly if new information becomes available."

Where did the decision come from?

The school board statement issued Oct. 27 contained some rationale for their decision, including the fact that schools can operate safely without 100% vaccine coverage and the fact that public health data showed that it's students, not staff, who have driven transmission in schools this year. 

"The value of mandating vaccination for staff may be limited where community vaccine coverage is already high, and schools are following COVID-19 safety plans," said background information provided by the board.

(You can read the full statement here to see the complete explanation.)

Parent Anne Whitmore told trustees she has concerns about a "small but vocal" contingent of anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers at her children's school.

"I have some real concerns about the safety of kids in our schools," she said.

Whitmore told the board it would be helpful to better understand how trustees arrived at their decision and when they would revisit it, with a firm date commitment.

School board chair Gurveen Dhaliwal said discussion around the issue had been done behind closed doors because it involves labour relations – one of the grounds for holding debates in-camera rather than in public. She said that, at this point, the board has not received new guidance from public health officials, so revisiting the issue is not on their radar.

Potential staff losses a concern

Trustee Dee Beattie said she had been in favour of a vaccine mandate until she realized how problematic it could be – particularly given that staff have not been shown to be the drivers of transmission in schools.

She pointed to the workload involved in accommodating those staff who choose not to be vaccinated and in trying to fill their positions for “a very small amount” of gain.

“The disruption to our classrooms would be intense,” she said. "The staff tensions would rise. We would add another layer for staff to have anxiety about.”

Beattie also expressed her concerns over some employees potentially losing their jobs.

“There’s no way I could vote to say to a 30-year employee who has chosen not to get the vaccine, who has given their life’s work to the district, who has reported to work over the last 18 months in an intense, stressful work situation … We turn around and say to them, 'Sorry, we’re not going to pay you, you’re going to lose your jobs,'" she said.

Because the district does not require employees to disclose their vaccination status, it's not known exactly how many employees would stand to be affected.

But Beattie pointed to Surrey, which has estimated it could lose about 600 staff if a vaccine mandate were put in place; with New Westminster being about one-tenth the size, Beattie ballparked New Westminster's potential loss at about 60.

Robert Weston, the district's executive director of human resources, said the district has about 1,000 staff all told (including teachers on call and education assistant casual staff). Statistically, he noted, that would mean that, with a 95% vaccination rate, a vaccine mandate could still affect about 50 staffers.

Connelly suggested the parents who are still concerned about the issue should take those concerns to the provincial government.

"I struggled with this one, and I still am finding it very concerning that this was downloaded to districts, to each of the 60 districts to make a decision independently," she said.

School board 'encourages' vaccination

Beattie stressed that the board still believes all teachers and school staff should be vaccinated.

“Ideally, yes, we stand by that our employees should get vaccines," she said.

On Nov. 4, the school board, school district, New Westminster Teachers' Union, CUPE Local 409 (the union representing school support staff) and the New Westminster Principals' and Vice-Principals' Association issued a joint open letter to all staff encouraging them to be vaccinated.

"To those of you who have had questions, who haven’t found the time, or who have been resistant for some other reason, we are jointly appealing to you now to take steps to join your peers in getting vaccinated. For those who are able to, vaccinations are important way to protect everyone around us, especially as we seek to protect those who cannot be vaccinated or are immune compromised," the letter reads, in part.

"This appeal is also about our concern for your individual health as well. For your safety, and for that of those around you, we encourage anyone who is eligible to get vaccinated as soon as possible, for those who have yet to do so. And we’ll offer this reminder as well: you can take paid time off to get vaccinated, using the 'COVID Vaccination' option in our absence reporting system to do so."

You can read the full text of the letter here.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
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