Why BC isn't mandating COVID-19 vaccines for school staff and students

Aug 25 2021, 12:00 am

On Tuesday morning, the provincial government revealed sweeping new health measures surrounding K-12 and post-secondary learning in British Columbia, as well as a province-wide indoor mask mandate.

The announcement was given by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside, and Minister of Advanced Education Anne Kang.

For K-12, mask usage will be required while in indoor settings for all staff, as well as for students grade 4 and above. Similarly, the province-wide mask mandate will apply to all indoor spaces at post-secondary institutions.

One question that came up, however, was why the province wasn’t making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for staff and eligible students. Especially since earlier this month, health officials revealed that full vaccination against COVID-19 would be mandatory for healthcare workers at long-term care homes and assisted living facilities.

Risk level in different settings

According to Henry, the decision to not mandate COVID-19 immunizations for staff and eligible students was “proportional to the risk.”

“This is one of those things where there are a whole bunch of different factors that are in play around vaccine mandates,” she explained. “We’ve talked about this a little bit where it is an important difference in outcomes at risk if you will.”

Henry stressed that even with the absence of vaccines over the previous year, schools were a safe setting where the risk of COVID-19 transmission was “very low.” In contrast, however, virus transmission can have much more fatal consequences in areas such as long-term care and assisted living homes.

“We know that once the virus is introduced in the long-term care setting, even fully-vaccinated elderly seniors may become infected and can be lethally infected by this virus,” she explained. “We saw this over the weekend where we had 10 people in long-term care succumb to COVID-19.”

She added that the best way to protect children under the age of 12 who can’t be immunized is for the adults around them to be vaccinated themselves. This was also brought up when Henry was asked about why students between K-3, who may be used to wearing face masks indoors, weren’t being mandated to use them while in class.

Mandatory COVID-19 immunizations for post-secondary students and staff

When it comes to BC’s post-secondary sector, the provincial government says that each institution will have the authority to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for its staff.

“That’s a decision that post-secondary institutions will be making on their own,” Kang explained. “If institutions such as colleges and universities would like to make their own decisions on vaccination policy for other settings, they may do that and do their own due diligence but also work with public health on that.”

As far as students go, however, Henry stressed that schools won’t be able to enforce widespread vaccination at this time. The BC Vaccine Card, which affects a student’s ability to access communal living settings, as well as on-campus activities, will serve as a “baseline.”

“Where we think it is important for students is in the communal living settings,” she explained. “So that’s the baseline that we have put in place.”

“Right now, these are the measures that we think are important to take us through the BC Vaccine Card and the initiative to try and ensure that we can have continued, safe activities over the next couple of months.”

Henry added that one scenario in which mandatory COVID-19 vaccination would be required is for health sciences students. This is because many of them are required to do practicums and other training in healthcare settings, which can include long-term care and assisted living.

She also noted that there “are many things still on the table” that health officials will look at over the coming weeks and months.

“It’s hard to say what’s going to happen over the fall.”

Vincent PlanaVincent Plana

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