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New Westminster school district won't implement vaccine mandate

Schools can continue to operate safely without 100% vaccination rate, board says
COVID vaccine
The New Westminster school district will not require teachers and staff in School District 40 to be vaccinated.

Teachers and staff in New Westminster schools won’t be required to get COVID-19 vaccines.

“After carefully weighing the data and guidance and taking into consideration the measures we already have in place, and those that can be applied if additional need arises, the board of education has decided that we will not move forward with a staff vaccine mandate in New Westminster,” school board chair Gurveen Dhaliwal announced in a public statement issued at 5 p.m. yesterday (Oct. 27).

The New Westminster school board first publicly discussed the idea Oct. 1, when trustees voted at a special COVID-19-related board meeting to seek a legal opinion on the issue.  After that meeting, the board opted to wait until provincial guidance came down from a Ministry of Education advisory committee – guidance that was released on Oct. 22.

The board has since discussed the issue behind closed doors, including meeting with representatives of Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health.

Dhaliwal noted that the school district received “detailed data” from health authorities to help guide its decision-making process.

Among the considerations, she noted that public health data from the first six weeks of the school year shows that the number of school-associated cases of COVID-19 are lower than case counts or transmission in the general community, “showing us that the protocols we have in place are working.”

The public health data showed 2009 school-associated cases of COVID-19 between Sept. 7 and Oct. 14 in the Fraser Health region, which spans the territory from Burnaby to Boston Bar, including New Westminster. Of those, 210 cases involved staff; about 50% were among vaccinated staff and 50% among unvaccinated staff.

It also says staff were the “index cases” in just 12 of 104 identified “clusters” of COVID-19 in Fraser Health schools, and those included a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated staff.

NEW WESTMINSTER VACCINATION RATES ALREADY HIGH

Dhaliwal also pointed out that New Westminster continues to be one of the leading municipalities when it comes to full vaccination rates (as of Oct. 26, 88% of New Westminster residents were fully vaccinated).

“Transmission is significantly reduced when target immunization rates are met. In B.C. those rates are between 80 and 90%,” the statement said.  “Schools can safely operate with lower than 100% vaccine coverage.”

Dhaliwal said the board also took into account the results of an internal human resources analysis – including the fact that the majority of school district staff live in communities with high vaccination rates.

She also cited B.C. Teachers’ Federation research that indicates 94% of teachers surveyed are fully vaccinated already, with another 1% having received one dose and intending to get their second.

The district also considered the “possible implications of needing to provide accommodation for staff” and the “potential subsequent impacts on school staffing levels and the learning supports available for students” before arriving at its final decision.

Without specific numbers of vaccinated local staff, it's impossible to know how deep staff shortages could have been had it come to that. However, as a rough guideline, based on the 432 teachers in the district (as of an Oct. 6 district report), a 95% vaccination rate would mean about 410 teachers – leaving the district, potentially, as many as 22 teachers short.

SCHOOL DISTRICT SUPPORTS VACCINATION

Dhaliwal’s statement reiterated the district’s support for vaccination.

“Our board stands behind supporting vaccinations as one of the most important ways that we can protect the people we live and work with. But, as vaccine mandates are one of many interventions available, we must also use the data and recommendations from our health and regulatory bodies to guide us, as we weigh the possible benefits against the risks and challenges,” she said.

She also said the district will continue to work with health authorities to “encourage and support” vaccinations for every staff member in the district.

School District 40 workers are represented by two unions: the New Westminster Teachers’ Union and CUPE Local 409 (representing support staff).

Leading up to the decision, the teachers’ union had told the board it “would not oppose” a vaccine mandate – provided exemptions were available for medical or religious reasons and provided teacher privacy could be protected.

CUPE Local 409 had said it would support vaccination policies, but not mandates.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
Email Julie, jmaclellan@newwestrecord.ca.