Some teachers' unexpectedly low priority for vaccine among sore points of pandemic year
In a CBC News questionnaire, some teachers sound off about a difficult year
This story is part of a CBC News series examining the stresses the pandemic has placed on educators and the school system. For the series, CBC News sent a questionnaire to thousands of education professionals to find out how they and their students are doing in this extraordinary school year. Nearly 9,500 educators responded. Read more stories in this series here.
A lack of information from the government, changing operational plans, and the constant responsibility of making sure children have their masks on, hands sanitized and are socially distanced is why one teacher in the Fredericton area describes this past year as the most difficult in their career.
The teacher said confusing rules and regulations being enforced at schools leave teachers vulnerable.
During the red phase, teachers had to answer a COVID set of questions before entering the school, but hundreds of students came off the buses and freely entered the building, the teacher said.
This year has left the teacher considering leaving the classroom.
"You're constantly overly vigilant and almost held responsible to make sure that the kids are following the safety guidelines put out by the ministry."
That echoes what many teachers described in a questionnaire sent to educators across the country by CBC News.
The questionnaire was sent to more than 50,000 email addresses of school workers in eight different provinces, across nearly 200 school districts.
Nearly 9,500 education professionals across Canada responded to the bilingual questionnaire, the second CBC sent out this school year.
'No one is speaking up'
Of the more than 130 respondents in New Brunswick, many painted a picture of elementary and middle school teachers who feel left behind, unheard and afraid to speak up.
Thirty-six educators answered an open-ended question that gave them the opportunity to share their thoughts. They described a school year with a long list of responsibilities that go beyond teaching, including making sure children follow COVID-19 rules.
Several talked about feeling that kindergarten to Grade 8 teachers have been left behind when it comes to vaccinations, arguing the nature of their jobs leaves them more vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure.
After the first CBC questionnaire went to educators last fall, the teachers' associations and union sent an email to educators, saying the questionnaire wasn't sanctioned. It warned they should "always be cautious about requests from the media." Only 29 teachers filled out that first questionnaire.
CBC has agreed to keep the identity of a teacher who agreed to speak out this time confidential.
"If we do kind of speak up, we're just regarded as being negative or looked down upon and blacklisted. No one on your staff wants to back you up in fear of being reprimanded or treated differently," said the teacher.
"So when bigger decisions, protocols, school operations are delivered, no one is speaking up."
Vaccination a key issue
Of the 36 comments CBC received from teachers in the questionnaire, 12 brought up the issue of vaccinations.
"I wish they would make vaccinating teachers a priority and not make us wait for our age group to come up," wrote one teacher in the questionnaire's comments.
"I am incredibly frustrated with the announcement that teachers will not receive the vaccine as essential workers," wrote another.
"Why are we getting tested in an accelerated fashion? Why has the government declared that school will remain open even in the red phase? Are these not indicative that we are at risk of being exposed? Our bubbles at work connect with the bubbles of 20+ students. Support teachers work with multiple classes. They are exposed to upwards of a hundred bubbles potentially."
In March, the provincial government held vaccine clinics for high school teachers across the province but not for middle and elementary school teachers. Their clinics were to be held in the coming weeks, but these teachers are now just falling in line with their age cohorts.
"When we first made announcements and decisions around who was going to get vaccinated when, really was at the same time that we were receiving more information from [the National Advisory Committee on Immunization] around the different age populations that would be continued to be eligible for those second doses," said Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell.
"So now, as of right now, we have the supplies we need to open up the age cohorts."
Getting vaccinated along with the age cohort is what most teachers are doing, but with the school year nearly finished, for some teachers it feels like too little too late.
Rick Cuming, the co-president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association, said he's been working since last fall to have teachers considered essential workers.
"It's important to recognize that our elementary and our middle school teachers have been packed in classrooms, regular class sizes, from the beginning of this pandemic."
Cuming said that depending on the colour phase, there's no masking in classrooms and no social distancing.
"So it is really important that they get offered the opportunity to be vaccinated as soon as possible."
'You just feel like you're last on the list'
Cuming said he has written to officials in Public Health and the Department of Education, namely Russell and Education Minister Dominic Cardy.
"The response was that they understand our positions, but it's really Public Health that had to make those decisions and they had to consider factors like vaccine availability and the rollout," said Cuming.
"And so we don't have access to any of that information. So we have to trust the public health experts that are making the decisions."
He was told by Public Health that high school teachers were given the vaccine so that all the students could return to classes in April, instead of alternating between in-class and online learning.
"When we learned of that, we immediately started advocating for the elementary and middle school supply teachers to be offered that opportunity as soon as possible," he said.
Last week, some teachers in the Fredericton area were given notice that there were excess vaccines available at the clinic at the Brookside Mall. Teachers raced to the clinic, waited hours to get the shot and several were turned away.
"You just feel like you're last on the list," said the teacher who spoke with CBC. "That you're not even considered. And we're here. We are the front-line workers that are facing all of these challenges day in and day out."
Mandatory vaccines in schools
This teacher said vaccines should be mandatory for staff in schools.
"That should have been addressed at the beginning of the year," said the teacher.
"We spend the majority of the day with the students and are going through the constant phase changes and having students with their masks down and touching things and using equipment et cetera, and therefore making us feel more protected and safe in our own work environment."
Ryan Watkins, an employment lawyer in Toronto, said workplaces can make COVID vaccinations mandatory, with some exceptions.
"Because we're in a global pandemic, and under occupational health and safety laws, an employer is required to keep their workplace safe," said Watkins, a partner at the law firm of Whitten & Lublin.
Watkins suggested exceptions could be given for medical and religious reasons.
Cuming said the teachers' association maintains that getting a vaccine is a personal choice, while Cardy said high vaccination rates mean that making vaccinations mandatory isn't necessary.
"My strong recommendation to anyone as a citizen of the province who cares about themselves, their own health, if you do care about that, about your family's and your community more generally, get the shot, do the right thing," said Cardy. "Shouldn't have to be something legislated."
CBC sent the questionnaire to 52,351 email addresses of school workers in eight different provinces, across nearly 200 school districts. Email addresses were scraped from school websites that publicly listed them. The questionnaire was sent using SurveyMonkey.
CBC chose provinces and school districts based on interest by regional CBC bureaus and availability of email addresses. As such, this questionnaire is not a representative survey of educators in Canada. None of the questions were mandatory, and not all respondents answered all of the questions.
In New Brunswick, the questionnaire was sent to the email addresses of more than 1,300 educators. More than 130 responded.
(Data analysis: Roberto Rocha and Dexter McMillan)