Edmonton

Alberta school boards grappling with proof of vaccination mandates for staff

Dozens of school divisions in Alberta’s smaller cities and rural area are wrestling with how to handle provincial pressure to adopt a proof of vaccination mandate for staff.

One-third of boards have adopted policies so far

St. Paul Education superintendent Glen Brodziak says the public debate over mandating staff proof of vaccination has been angry and difficult to deal with. (CBC)

Dozens of the province's smaller school divisions are wrestling with how to handle provincial pressure to adopt a proof of vaccination mandate for staff.

They're juggling insurance implications, legal risks, students' health, anxious staff and divided communities who are dispensing an earful onto local trustees and superintendents.

St. Paul Education Regional Division, which runs both Catholic and public schools in eastern Alberta, is one board agonizing over what to do.

"This two-and-a-half months has been trying," superintendent Glen Brodziak says of the school year so far. "The divisiveness it's caused. It's been disheartening."

On Oct. 5, Health Minister Jason Copping and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange wrote to all school boards, private and charter schools, recommending they adopt vaccine mandates or routine rapid COVID-19 testing to prevent the spread of disease in schools. Children younger than 12 are ineligible to be vaccinated.

Government of Alberta employees, public health-care workers and some police officers are among others required to provide proof of vaccination.

LaGrange said Monday she can't tell school boards how to manage their employees.

Some of Alberta's largest boards, including public and Catholic divisions in Edmonton and Calgary, have already adopted mandates for school staff, contractors and visitors.

CBC found 26 of Alberta's 63 school boards will mandate vaccination proof or routine testing by January 2022 at the latest. At least five more are working on a mandate.

Others are not. Red Deer's Catholic school board will instead offer optional rapid testing. The Wetaskiwin regional school board opted to take no action.

Leading up to a mid-October meeting of St. Paul's school board, trustees and administrators were inundated with angry mail from the public. It was five days before civic elections across Alberta, when many trustees were vying for public support.

Some of the input has been rude and abusive, Brodziak said.

"On both sides, just because a voice is loud, it doesn't make that voice valid or worthy at the end of the day," he said.

Most of the feedback was opposed to vaccination proof for employees. COVID-19 vaccination rates within the school division are well below the provincial average of 81 per cent of those eligible.

Brodziak must now balance the safety of his staff and their students with the possibility of losing workers. School bus drivers are already in particularly short supply, he said. He'll make a recommendation to the school board by December.

"I don't want a child or a staff member getting sick, or, possibly, worse," he said. 

'I have searched my soul,' trustee says of mandates

Red Deer's public school division is in the same boat.

At a public meeting last month, trustees heard their liability insurance could skyrocket if they don't require proof of vaccination. But they, too, are getting pushback.

"I have searched my soul," trustee Bev Manning said at the Oct. 13 meeting. "I wouldn't want anybody to tell me that I had to take a vaccine in order to hold my job."

There was also anger at the provincial government for downloading this difficult decision onto school boards.

Bill Stuebing, a 26-year trustee who did not run for re-election, said the provincial government has repeatedly punted controversial decisions to other levels of government.

"They have been elected to review and make important decisions on our behalf collectively, and what they have done is made a decision to pass the buck, yet again," Stuebing said last month.

Like school mask mandates, requiring Alberta school staff to show proof of vaccination or engage in routine rapid COVID-19 testing to stay employed has proved to be a difficult decision for some school divisions. (Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images)

The Alberta Teachers' Association supports proof of vaccine mandates, as long as they're temporary and not punitive to workers, president Jason Schilling says. He also believes the province should have adopted a blanket mandate for consistency.

The Alberta government maintains it lacks this authority. However, in Manitoba, where school boards are also elected, the provincial government mandated proof of vaccination or routine testing for all education workers.

Trustee resigns over mandate

The issue is so polarizing, it cost Edmonton's Catholic school board a trustee.

On Tuesday, while speaking to Edmonton's public board, Carla Smiley said she abruptly resigned after being acclaimed to a second term on the Catholic board because of the policy that was "thrust" onto workers.

Smiley said she's receiving "heartbreaking" calls from school workers who have toiled through the pandemic but are unwilling to share personal health information.

"This invasion of personal medical privacy and the pressure to take a vaccine is too much," Smiley said. "Coercion is not consent."

She said the mandates will further divide communities and drive out valued educators.

An Edmonton Catholic spokesperson said it would be inappropriate to comment on Smiley's resignation.

Smiley was one of seven members of the public who told the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) on Tuesday to reverse its mandate.

After the meeting, board chair Trisha Estabrooks said she doesn't share their concerns.

EPSB says 11,671 of its 12,665 employees had shared their vaccination status with the division as of Friday.

Of those who have reported, nearly 96 per cent say they are fully vaccinated. It means at least 88 per cent of division workers are immunized.

Another 173 workers are seeking a health or religious exemption.

Estabrooks says there is no exodus of concerned workers.

"They're clearly seeing the benefits of vaccination for both the families and the kids that they support and themselves," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also worked at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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