Edmonton

Edmonton's public school board wants province to expand COVID-19 child vaccination options

Edmonton’s public school board is pushing the provincial government to make COVID-19 vaccinations more accessible to children.

Trustees say pediatric shots should be offered in school-based clinics, pharmacies

Edmonton's public school board is concerned by what it says is a low COVID-19 vaccination rate for children aged five to 11. (Jonathan Cherry/Reuters)

Edmonton's public school board is pushing the provincial government to make COVID-19 vaccinations more accessible to children.

Concerned by the low number of kids aged five to 11 who have received even a single dose of the pediatric vaccine, the board voted unanimously on Tuesday to advocate for the province to expand the number of clinics, including in schools.

"While the current system of access is working for some, it is not working for all," said board vice-chair Nathan Ip, who proposed the idea.

The board will write to the premier, health and education ministers asking them to introduce mobile vaccination clinics for children, school-based clinics in areas where coverage rates are low, add more locations where kids can get shots, and make them widely available in pharmacies.

As of Tuesday, 41.5 per cent of Alberta children aged five to 11 had received a first dose of the vaccine, and 5.5 per cent had received a second dose.

Right now, shots for younger kids are mainly available at 120 mass-vaccination sites run by Alberta Health Services.

Trustees said some of the locations are far-flung and inaccessible by transit. Parents may not have time off work to take children to appointments, they said.

More immune adults and children in schools could help reduce the number of sick staff and help keep schools running more smoothly, Ip said.

In an email, Steve Buick, press secretary to Health Minister Jason Copping, said increasing vaccine coverage is a "top priority" for the minister.

Most clinics are open evenings and weekends, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and they plan to extend the hours on Jan. 21 when many children become eligible for a second dose, he said.

Buick said public polling found about 30 to 40 per cent of parents intended to vaccinate their elementary school-aged children.

"We recognize that this is a choice for parents that's about more than just getting to a clinic," he said.

He said the government is encouraging more parents to choose vaccination and seeking advice from a vaccine hesitancy advisory committee and other experts.

Staff shortages

Edmonton Public Schools superintendent Darrel Robertson also said Tuesday the division hired 29 substitute teachers on full-time contracts for the month of January to help fill some of the expected staff shortages prompted by the Omicron variant.

Robertson said principals are increasingly taking over classes as the division grapples to find enough substitute teachers for sick staff.

On Tuesday, 615 teachers called in sick, and 110 of those classes had no substitute teacher. The numbers have trended up since classes resumed last week.

Even more dire is the situation for students who rely on education assistants (EAs). Robertson said long-standing problems recruiting and training enough EAs had already led to a shortage. He said elementary students with disabilities are being prioritized.

Before the pandemic, the division was short 30-to-50 EAs per day, he said. The first day back to class in 2022, the division was short 124 EAs. By Tuesday, that had risen to 200, he said.

"It's hard to hear those numbers," board chair Trisha Estabrooks told reporters on Tuesday. "Behind every EA is a student, or a couple of students, who rely on our educational assistants to help them with their learning."

Student illnesses and staff shortages had prompted the division to move 10 classes online so far, Robertson said – but he expects that number to climb.

According to the division's online tracking tool tallying self-reported student absences due to COVID-19, about five per cent of students are out of school with an infection or a close contact in isolation. However, the tracker shows that COVID-19 has led to as many as 15 per cent of students being absent from some schools.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.

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