Edmonton Catholic school board wants mandatory vaccinations for all Alberta students

Edmonton Catholic Schools is calling on the province to make vaccines mandatory for students attending all publicly funded schools.

Trustees also shut down discussion on reforms to the sex education curriculum

Edmonton Catholic Schools Trustee Marilyn Bergstra stands behind her chair during Tuesday's board meeting as Superintendent Joan Carr speaks about the process of reforming the provincial sex education curriculum. (Roberta Bell/CBC)

The Edmonton Catholic school board is calling on the province to make vaccines mandatory for all students attending publicly funded schools in Alberta.

Trustees with Edmonton Catholic Schools voted unanimously Tuesday to ask the Alberta School Boards Association to join them as they lobby the government to make the legislative change. 

On Wednesday, however, the government said it had no plans to reopen a debate on mandatory vaccinations in the classroom.

Education Minister David Eggen said the government's own newly developed regulations are strong enough to protect students without necessarily forcing vaccines on students or forcing students out of schools.

"I think that our policy is probably reasonable and strong and we don't want to expel kids because their parents aren't vaccinating them," Eggen said. 

Trustee Marilyn Bergstra, who introduced the motion, wants to see students immunized against diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps and rubella. 

Bergstra said there is a "reduced appetite" among some parents to vaccinate their children. 

"As we're decreasing vaccination rates in the developed world, we're seeing increased outbreaks," she said. 
Edmonton Catholic Schools Trustee Larry Kowalcyzk speaks in support of mandatory vaccinations. (Roberta Bell/CBC)

Trustee Larry Kowalcyzk also spoke in support of the efficacy of widespread vaccinations. 

"Vaccinations have been proven around the world," Kowalcyzk said. "The world, due to vaccinations, had just about eliminated polio. However, there have been new signs of polio in the African countries where no vaccinations have been able to be done." 

He said parents have a responsibility to vaccinate their children.

"If your child is not vaccinated, you're putting the rest of the classroom in liability, in danger," he said. "Having everyone vaccinated, I think it's just a good idea."

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said despite declining vaccination rates in some parts of the world, Alberta is not losing the battle with preventable illnesses. 

"When you look at things like the recent mumps outbreak, that's very scary and it's completely preventable," Hoffman said Wednesday.

"That's why we're providing information to ensure that public health can work with families to ensure that they can provide facts and evidence to enable them to make the best decisions for their children."

The only students the board agreed should be exempt from the practice are those who have a doctor's note confirming a medical condition which could be complicated by immunization, such as auto-immune depression. 

Sex education 'already there' in the curriculum

Bergstra also asked her colleagues to back reforms to the provincial sex education curriculum to address "gaps" around consent, contraception and programming tailored to at-risk students, LGBTQ students and students with mental and physical disabilities.

That motion failed.

Kowalcyzk and trustee Debbie Engel spoke against recommending specific changes to the sex education curriculum.

Speaking about the curriculum's content, Engel said it was "really irresponsible to lobby for something that's already there."

​Kowalcyzk echoed the sentiment, reading out a letter sent home to the parents of Grade 8 students before their sex education class.

"I think there are no gaps and this is quite inclusive," he said. 

Bergstra disagreed, noting she's heard from students and medical professionals who say otherwise. 

"There are gaps. I want to support the government so that they can be assured that Catholic boards are also behind a comprehensive sex education reform," Bergstra said. "If you want to keep holding on to 'It's good enough,' then I don't believe you've listened to me at all."