CANMORE – The largest school division in the Bow Valley is introducing a COVID-19 vaccination policy for teachers and staff.
The Canadian Rockies Public Schools (CRPS) school board unanimously passed the new policy that will begin Nov. 24 and see teachers, staff and adults entering school facilities show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test.
“Our No. 1 goal in the school division is always to have the staff and students be safe. When you have the employee groups demonstrate they want this, that’s when we have to listen,” said CRPS superintendent Chris MacPhee.
The policy will only apply to teachers, staff and adults and not students.
MacPhee emphasized mandating vaccinations for students is outside the purview of the school division and school board and ultimately a decision only the provincial and federal governments or Alberta Health Services can introduce.
At the Oct. 20 meeting, the board discussed the possibility of bringing the policy into effect on Dec. 17, but will be brought into place a month sooner..
MacPhee said the policy has been largely created, but is going back-and-forth with tweaks to fine-tune aspects such as hosting sporting events, procedures for rapid testing and who will check proof of vaccination records.
“We’re trying to be prepared to cover every scenario that could evolve while moving down this road,” he said.
MacPhee said initial figures show between 10 and 20 teachers and staff will go the rapid testing route, but he added it could be fewer the closer the policy comes into effect.
The initial cost estimate for testing was about $6,000, but nothing has been finalized. The existing provincial policy has the province only pick up the tab if a school is in an active outbreak.
The school board announced the possibility of a vaccine mandate for teachers and staff in an Oct. 13 letter to families and staff. Former board chair and current trustee Carol Picard noted the four-year education plan focuses on the “health and well being of students and staff.”
The letter also emphasized the need for any staff and students showing COVID-19 symptoms of feeling ill to remain home.
“The actions of us all will help keep our students, staff and families healthy and safe,” she said.
The Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) has also been vocal in supporting a vaccine mandate for both teachers and school staff.
An ATA statement in late September pushed the provincial government to institute a vaccine mandate, and if they didn’t, for school boards to do so.
“The best way to support student safety at a time when so many students cannot be vaccinated is to ensure that the adults around them are vaccinated,” said ATA president Jason Schilling in the Sept. 28 news release.
“We cannot mandate vaccination for our members so we are making-it clear that we believe those who can like the government of Alberta or individual school boards – should.”
Schilling said the ATA would not oppose or challenge vaccine mandates if the policies are reasonable.
“School boards will have to ensure that employee privacy is respected as much as possible and personal information will have to be stored securely, but this is an area where a balancing of rights and responsibilities is warranted.”
The board decision sees CRPS join a growing list of school boards instituting similar policies. The Calgary Catholic Schools and Rocky View Schools require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test from staff. The Calgary Board of Education is requiring all employees, volunteers and CBE partners to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 17.
MacPhee said CRPS administration and the school board worked with their local unions from ATA and CUPE to see how many staff wanted a vaccine mandate.
The survey from the ATA had 92.4 per cent of members in favour, while the CUPE group had 97 per cent in favour, showing overwhelming support for the policy.
“The fact is, the staff has spoken. When you have a direction from your staff that’s more than 90 per cent, you have to seriously look at what they are asking for and implement as soon as possible because their safety is paramount,” MacPhee said.
In addition to union support, MacPhee said the school division received a letter signed by more than 20 Bow Valley physicians reinforcing the importance of COVID-19 vaccination for teachers and staff.
“As local physicians who have seen first-hand the link between vaccine resistance and the devastating effects of COVID-19 on individuals and our health care system, we support rational policies that may overcome resistance and increase the proportion of the population that is vaccinated,” the letter read.
“As a society, we should all take responsibility for protecting ourselves and each other – and our health resources – by getting vaccinated and following all public health recommendations. Our government and institutions should strive to achieve 100 per cent vaccination by making it easy for people to do the right thing.”