Anxious parents hoping the BC government might step in and mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for teachers and school staff were in for disappointment this week, after the government sidestepped the issue and fobbed the whole mess back onto local school trustees.
Following weeks of pressure to act due to rising case numbers amongst school-aged kids, Health Minister Adrian Dix announced Tuesday a new “advisory committee” that will study mandatory vaccines for teachers and then issue guidelines for school districts if they want to tackle the issue themselves.
“We know there is a desire expressed by people in the school communities for mandates in education,” said Dix.
“As such, the education ministry… is immediately convening an advisory committee, an ad hoc one with BCPSEA (BC Public School Employers’ Association) and other partners, to develop common principles, standards and guidelines to support boards with the potential implementation of vaccine mandates.”
In other words: Over to you, school districts. You figure it out.
All of this means BC’s 60 public school districts, made up collectively of hundreds of school trustees, may have to decide on a community-by-community basis whether to mandate vaccines on teachers, janitors, administrative staff and other school workers.
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If it sounds inefficient to rely on 60 different districts to make 60 different decisions on a public health issue – well, that’s because it is. But it also serves the political purpose of taking the heat off the provincial government and dumping it onto another group
It’s possible trustees could get a provincial template of sorts to follow, depending on what kind of work this new committee produces.
But each would still have to organize a series of meetings and votes. And it’s not clear if every district will actually make vaccines mandatory. Some, in areas like the north where vaccines remain a contentious issue and teachers are in short supply, could choose instead to opt out.
That could leave a patchwork system in BC that would protect some kids but not others, depending on where you live.
“Some days you just shake your head,” tweeted Opposition BC Liberal education critic Jackie Tegart. “Come on (Premier John Horgan) our kids and our education system need leadership here. Not a committee.”
— Jackie Tegart (@tegart_jackie) October 6, 2021
Dix said the provincial committee “will work quickly to get these materials to boards as soon as possible.
“If boards wish to explore a vaccine policy independently, we would strongly encourage them to work with BCPSEA and their local partners,” he added.
The new committee was announced on the same day Dix revealed he was mandating vaccinations for the 35,000 civil servants who work for the provincial government. That’s on top of previously-announced vaccine requirements for workers in health care facilities, seniors’ care homes and assisted living buildings.
But not teachers.
The rationale from inside government on why it is going this route is, typically, bureaucratic.
Technically, it is not the BC government that employs teachers, it is each individual school district, through its board and superintendent, using government money.
So the province feels it would be better if the actual legal employer – the district – figured things out with its actual legal employees.
One person who could cut through all the rhetoric and get the job done immediately would be Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
She could drop the hammer with a public health order that would mandate vaccinations for all teachers and school staff, like she has already done in health care sectors.
But Henry also cited bureaucratic legal hurdles for her inaction.
“Public health orders require certain conditions to be in place,” she said Tuesday.
“I have to have reasonable and probable grounds to believe there’s a health hazard, and there is that in a health care setting. That’s why we’ve focused on the areas where an order is needed in a health care setting.
“It is a different situation in many other settings, including industrial camps, including, absolutely, schools.”
Henry has pointed to data that argued the main transmission of COVID-19 amongst school-age children is from unvaccinated adults in their lives, and not necessarily inside schools.
The first test case for this new approach could be New Westminster, which earlier this week decided to seek a legal opinion on its options to mandate vaccines for teachers and staff.
Complicating factors somewhat is that nobody in this province actually knows how many teachers remain unvaccinated. Neither the government, nor the BC Teachers’ Federation, has surveyed teachers to report their vaccination status.
The BCTF says its best guess is that there’s high uptake already among teachers, but it does not oppose mandatory vaccination requirements as long as there are guarantees of privacy and certain exemptions for members.
The government’s fobbing off of responsibility for vaccinations to school boards may be where the situation stands for now.
But recent history has shown that worried and angry parents have a very powerful influence to change the government’s position.
Parents forced Dr. Henry to alter course and mandate masks for students in kindergarten to grade 3 just last week, after an organized uprising from parent advisory councils and school districts in the province’s largest communities.
It’s possible parents could do it again on teacher vaccinations – depending on how long the government’s new approach takes, and whether it works.