On Monday, trustees in the Prince George school district will discuss the potential to implement a mandatory vaccine policy for all K-12 school employees, now that the provincial government has released guidelines to help school boards make those decisions.
Sharel Warrington, chair of the School District 57 board, said trustees need time to discuss the guidelines before any decisions are made on vaccination policies and that will happen in meetings early next week in advance of the board’s public meeting Tuesday evening.
“It’s a huge amount of work, but once we’ve had the opportunity to review the guidelines we’ll have a clearer understanding of the steps that need to be taken,” said Warrington. “The guidelines were just revealed on Friday and I’ve just sent those guidelines out to all board members and asked them to review them and then we will have that conversation on Monday.
“There’s legal issues, there’s privacy issues, and contractual issues that need to be addressed. It’s a very large decision-making process.”
On Oct. 8, the provincial government announced it would leave it up to B.C.’s 60 school boards and independent school authorities to decide whether to develop COVID-19 vaccine mandates as a condition of employment for teachers and other school staff as a workplace heath and safety measure. Premier John Horgan said vaccine mandates should be a last resort for workers in B.C. schools and that local school board trustees know better than the government what’s best for their communities.
The guidelines issued Friday are designed to help school boards build a framework for developing vaccine policies. That starts with gathering data to determine the number of unvaccinated staff, either through voluntary self-disclosure or accessing public health data on vaccinated adults. Trustees would also be required to seek legal advice and consider privacy issues and implications of Charter rights, human rights and employment and labour case laws.
Before any decisions are made, boards would also be required to consult with employee groups, First Nations and Parent Advisory Committees. Boards would also have to give unvaccinated staff advanced warning of a vaccine mandate before it takes effect. Trustees would also have to review operational plans to ensure any negative effects on student learning will be minimized with the rollout of a vaccine policy.
The government warns in its framework guidelines that if school boards and school authorities decide not to follow the steps outlined in the document there might be legal or financial implications.
Warrington said she’s not aware of any school board in the province that has already decided to implement a vaccine mandate.
The Ministry of Education created the guidelines with input from with the B.C. School Trustees Association, B.C. Teachers' Federation, CUPE, First Nations Education Steering Committee, Federation of Independent Schools Association, and school district leadership associations, in consultation with the provincial health office. The document is also supported by the BC Public School Employers Association.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said the guidelines will help trustees make informed decisions on what works best for their school districts.
“From the beginning of the pandemic we have worked together - to keep students safely learning in-class, to encourage all eligible British Columbians to get vaccinated and to make sure school safety plans are robust and supported,” said Whiteside. “With guidelines now available, trustees can make decisions around vaccination policies that work best for their communities as we work together to continue to support a culture of vaccination in our schools.”
The Liberal opposition has criticized the government for downloading the responsibility of developing vaccine mandates to individual school districts, saying there should be a blanket policy put in place.
B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said in an Oct.8 statement that vaccination rates are lower in some parts of the province, such as the Peace region, and school trustees could encounter "a high level of pushback" if they make it mandatory for teachers to be vaccinated as a condition of employment.
“We could have a situation where the parts of the province that need mandates the most would be the least likely to implement them,” Mooring said.
Mooring also said differing policies put in place by neighbouring school districts could affect unvaccinated school employees who work in more than one district and that could lead to complications.
With files from The Canadian Press