Thousands of Niagara school staff can get vaccinated against COVID-19 over April break

As many as 4,000 educators and others who work at District School Board Niagara sites can get their shots to protect against COVID-19 between April 10 and 18, according to a release from the board.

Shots mean increased safety of students, staff and their families: DSBN chair

Niagara's public and Catholic school boards say thousands of eligible staff members can book COVID-19 vaccinations starting this Saturday. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of staff members with schools in Ontario's Niagara region can get vaccinated against COVID-19 starting this Saturday.

As many as 4,000 educators and others who work at District School Board Niagara (DSBN) schools can get their shots from April 10 to 18, the board said in a release.

Niagara's Catholic school board also said roughly 2,000 eligible staff can sign up to receive their shots at the Seymour-Hannah Sports and Recreation in St. Catharines.

But it's not clear when teachers across the province can expect to get vaccinated.

When asked about shots for school staff during a provincial update Tuesday afternoon, Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Health Christine Elliott said Ontario will continue to prioritize vaccine rollout based on age and risk.

Special education teachers with a higher risk of coming into contact with students are among the groups the province is working on plans to vaccinate, said Elliott. But no details about what that will look like were immediately provided.

"Every time you make a change to vaccinate all teachers ... that then means you're also taking supplies away for some of the seniors too, so you need to be fair," Elliott said, adding the province acknowledges most teachers can't work from home.

A step toward a 'normal school year'

Boards in Niagara said the goal is to get people vaccinated before the April 19 return to classes following the spring break.

"Schools are microcosms of the community, and we know that we are not immune to being affected by community cases," said Camillo Cipriano, director of education for the Niagara Catholic District School Board, in a statement. 

"We recognize how easy it is to transmit COVID-19, especially the new variants of concern," he said. "This is one more step towards what most of us recognize as a normal school year, hopefully in September."

Both boards thanked Niagara Health and Niagara Region Public Health, as well as the hospital system, for advocating for school staff to get shots as soon as possible.

"Vaccinating staff who work in schools means that another layer of safety and protection is there for students, staff, and their families," said Warren Hoshizaki, DSBN director of education, in a media release.

DSBN said that, with provincial plans to keep schools open, it has been pushing for staff to get vaccinated, describing shots for school workers as "critical."

"NRPH and Niagara Health have gone above and beyond to ensure that staff who work in schools are vaccinated, and we are incredibly thankful," DSBN chair Sue Barnett said in the release.

"By making this decision, they have increased the safety of our students, staff and their families for the rest of the year."

The board says staff are working with health officials this week to sort out the logistics of providing shots so they can begin this weekend.

HWDSB formally requesting staff get vaccinated 

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) chair Dawn Danko formally requested the immediate vaccination of educators.

"We are encouraged that other public health units across the province are working with their school boards to vaccinate education workers in the next week. Vaccinating education workers now will improve the conditions that allow schools to stay open," she wrote in an emailed statement early Tuesday evening.

A spokesperson said just before noon on Tuesday that the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) has not received any update on when staff can expect to get vaccinated.

"There's no doubt that we continue to advocate for education workers to receive the vaccination," spokesperson Shawn McKillop said in an email. "We're staying hopeful and continue to work with Hamilton Public Health Services." 

Local teachers' unions, meanwhile, are ramping up calls for their members to get vaccinated.

"How come in Niagara, teachers and educational workers are going to get the vaccine and that includes, to my understanding, Grimsby? But if you live in Winona, 'Sorry about your luck, we're not sure when you're getting it,'" said Nick de Koning, the Ontario English Catholic Teacher's Association president for Hamilton-Wentworth.

Daryl Jerome, president of the local bargaining unit of Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said in an email that local public health "needs to take Niagara Health's lead and prioritize vaccines for education workers, now."

Jeff Sorensen, president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Local for the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, said the union has also received no information about vaccinations for members.

Unions representing teachers in Hamilton are calling for their members to get the COVID-19 shot. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

He pointed to the HWDSB's call for vaccines, saying he was "confused by the apparent disconnect" between pushing for shots and keeping schools open for in-person learning.

"If vaccines are necessary to keep staff and students safe, then why are we still open when we don't have access to vaccines?"

Ford says schools are safe

Asked Tuesday about the risk of COVID-19 in schools, Ford said education facilities are safe.

He pointed to the Christmas break as an example of cases spreading among students.

"When kids go back into the community, that's where it's happening," he said. "It's not happening in the schools. It's happening when there's community spread."

with files from Bobby Hristova