This story is part of a CBC News series examining the stresses the pandemic has placed on educators and the school system. For the series, CBC News sent a questionnaire to thousands of education professionals to find out how they and their students are doing in this extraordinary school year. Nearly 9,500 educators responded. Read more stories in this series here.
Both of Laurie Dagg-Labine’s kids have missed out on high school rites of passage. Her 18-year-old daughter, Ada, bought a long black prom dress, but her school’s prom was later cancelled. Her 15-year-old son, Nolan, started Grade 9 in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, unable to do the activities he used to love at school, like playing chess, basketball and hockey.
“Any of the excitements of entering high school just weren’t there,” said Dagg-Labine, who lives in the northeastern Ontario city of Timmins.
“To say that they’ve struggled would be an understatement.”
Ada and Nolan, who’ve had to abruptly switch to online learning twice since March 2020, don’t know what their next school year will look like. Their mom believes that this disruption and uncertainty can be avoided in the future — if COVID-19 vaccines are mandatory for everyone at school, including teachers and other staff.
CBC News asked provincial governments in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador whether COVID-19 vaccines would be mandatory for school staff. They all said no.
But some parents and teachers say it’s a good idea, even if the idea of mandating vaccines for any employee is controversial.
A questionnaire by CBC’s investigative unit sent to educators in those provinces found that 68 per cent of respondents said COVID-19 vaccines should be mandatory for school staff. More than 85 per cent said they were either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about catching COVID-19 at work.
Nearly 9,500 staff answered the survey and 8,022 answered the question on mandatory vaccines. Of all 9,441 people who responded to the survey, 77 per cent were teachers, while 17 per cent were support staff like education assistants and librarians, five per cent were principals, vice principals or other administrative staff and one per cent worked in maintenance and facilities. This questionnaire is not a representative survey of educators in Canada.
Making schools safe
April Peterson, a high school science teacher in North Bay, Ont., believes educators have a duty to get their COVID-19 vaccines and that it should be mandatory.
“I kind of feel that if we’re in a publicly funded system, that’s being paid for by the public, our job is to protect the public, right?” she said.
“If you go into this profession, your number one duty is to make sure that kids are safe.”
A teacher since 1990, she said she’s taught students with all kinds of health issues, including diabetes and cystic fibrosis.
“Since a lot of kids can’t be vaccinated as of right now, it’s kind of our job to form that barrier around them to keep them protected.”
Most children don’t have access to a COVID-19 vaccine. The only shot that’s been approved for youth in Canada is Pfizer’s, which will soon be given to children and teens 12 and older.
Jill Murray, a mother of four in Ottawa, said that mandatory vaccines for staff would ease some of her worries about the pandemic.
“Part of the anxiety around all this is feeling bad for the school staff and teachers,” Murray said. “Part of my big anxiety is sending my kids to school and worrying that they’re going to pass it on to someone, including teachers and school staff. So, if they’re vaccinated, that makes me feel that much better.”
‘Matter of choice’ says teachers federation
Shelley Morse, president of the Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF), said that while teachers should be prioritized for vaccination, the shot shouldn’t be required.
“It’s a matter of choice,” Morse told CBC News. “There are people who will have to check with their health-care providers and decide what’s best for them. That will be up to the individual teacher or education worker.”
Morse said it will be up to governments and scientists to decide whether a mandatory vaccine for educators is the best way to protect younger kids.
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Toronto-based employment lawyer Ryan Watkins said he’s been getting “nonstop” calls about whether employers can require employees to be vaccinated, calling it the “hottest topic” in employment law.
Watkins said he believes it would be legal for school boards to require their staff to be vaccinated.
“There’s always a balance that employers want to make in terms of mandating an employee to do something, especially when it’s related to their body and their personal choice and privacy,” Watkins said. “So that there is some hesitancy there from employers to mandate a vaccination policy.”
But “in terms of the quickest way to get back to a normal life,” he said a vaccination policy is the best way forward.
Mandate could have unintended consequences
Other professionals point out practical or ethical issues with a vaccination mandate.
Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor of health science at the University of Ottawa, said there isn’t enough to gain from a vaccination mandate, especially because most Canadian adults plan to get vaccinated.
“I think most people agree that schools are more or less safe-ish,” he said, since children aren’t generally at a high risk of bad outcomes if they get COVID-19.
The goal with schools, then, would be to protect adults and the broader community from increased transmission. That can be done with voluntary vaccination and through other public health measures like reducing class sizes, doing regular testing for COVID-19, and making sure people with symptoms stay home.
He also said that a mandate could contribute to vaccine hesitancy, because it could be seen as coercive.
“How do we convince people to get vaccinated? I think we have to win their hearts and minds.”
Maxwell Smith, a bioethicist and assistant professor of health sciences at Western University, said a mandate might be more justifiable in a setting like health care, where patients are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
“The benefits of a vaccination requirement far exceed the risks that might exist in those settings,” he said. “But if we think about the general population or requirements that you’d be vaccinated to go to a grocery store … we can start to see that balance shifting a bit.”
For Dagg-Labine, the Timmins mother-of-two, a mandatory vaccination policy would provide peace of mind. She said if one of the universities her daughter is considering announced a mandate, they would likely choose that school. It would provide assurance that Ada would be safe living in residence and participating in extracurricular activities.
“It’s not just about the physical health, it’s about all of the pieces of the school environment that we’ve had to leave behind the last few years.”
CBC News sent the questionnaire to 52,351 email addresses of school workers in nearly 200 school districts across eight provinces. Email addresses were scraped from school websites that listed them publicly. The questionnaire was sent using SurveyMonkey.
CBC News chose provinces and school districts based in part on the availability of email addresses. As such, this questionnaire is not a representative survey of educators in Canada. None of the questions were mandatory and not all respondents answered all of the questions.
9,441 people filled out the questionnaire.
Read more in this series:
To share your experience in the education system during COVID-19 and for any story tips, please email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Data analysis, code and charts by Roberto Rocha and Dexter McMillan.
With files from Nigel Hunt.