New Brunswick

'Caught between battling adults,' some N.B. youth sidelined by vaccine rule

A broadening scope of COVID-19 vaccine requirements for New Brunswick students is raising concerns about youth being sidelined for a decision left in most cases up to their parents.

Students need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for sports, extracurricular activities in schools

Students are set to return to school in New Brunswick on Monday with the requirement that they be vaccinated against COVID-19 if they want to participate in sports, extracurricular activities, and clubs. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

As New Brunswick loosens restrictions, and schools prepare to reopen Monday, some students are expected to be sidelined from sports, clubs and committees if they aren't vaccinated against COVID-19.

It's a prospect that's raising concerns for those under 16, who will be left unable to participate in many activities outside the classroom because of a decision left up to their parents in most cases.

"So if their parents are against vaccination … it pushes those children, those, those teenagers into a position where, you know, they could be ostracized, they could miss out on things for reasons that have nothing to do with themselves," said Kerry Bowman, a professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Toronto.

On Monday, Education Minister Dominic Cardy said students will be required to get their COVID-19 shots if they want to participate in sports, extracurricular activities and clubs through their school, summarizing what was already contained in his department's Health and Safe Schools winter plans for kindergarten to Grade 8, and Grade 9 to Grade 12.

Cardy's reminder about the mandate came ahead of the province's planned move from Level 3 to the less restrictive Level 2 of its COVID-19 winter plan on Saturday, and the reopening of schools to in-person classes next Monday after being closed since the holiday break because of record cases of COVID-19.

With schools reopening under Level 2, no unvaccinated students 12 or older will be allowed to participate in any indoor or outdoor sports and extracurricular activities, including, choir, drama, and band. 

Both unvaccinated and vaccinated students under 12 will be allowed to play sports, with varying rules for group sizes as well as low-contact versus high-contact sports, according to Premier Blaine Higgs's statements at a Thursday news conference.

"The difference in measures for those under 12 and those over 12, is those over 12 have had time to receive both doses of vaccine, while those under are just starting to receive their second dose now," Higgs said.

Cardy wasn't made available for an interview and his department didn't answer questions from CBC News about how the mandate will work, or the impact it could have on some students.

Jennifer Russell, the province's chief medical officer of health, had urged parents and guardians to get their five-to-11-year-olds vaccinated before in-person classes resumed.

As of Friday, the single-dose vaccination rate for children five to 11 stood at 55.5 per cent, with just four per cent double-dosed. Meanwhile, 81.2 per cent of youth 12 to 19 years old have received two doses, lagging behind the provincial average of 84 per cent.

'They're not thinking of the kids'

Matt Firth coaches boys under 15 hockey in the Hampton area.

Originally reluctant to give permission for his 13-year-old son to get vaccinated, Firth changed his mind last fall so his son could continue playing the sport.

Last September, youth sports leagues in New Brunswick required that all youth 12 or older get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to play.

However, not all the parents of the players on Firth's team made the same choice.

"Well, typically we would have 15 skaters and sometimes two goaltenders, or sometimes one. This year we have 11 on our team, so everybody's kind of suffering here.

"The whole team kind of suffers when you're short like that. And then, of course, if anybody has a sniffle, they can't play, so it's quite often we're even shorter than our 11 skaters."

Matt Firth got his son vaccinated so he could keep playing hockey last fall, but he doesn't think the mandate is fair. (Submitted by Matt Firth)

While he and his family are vaccinated, Firth said, he thinks the mandate is unfair and is doing more harm than good for a select few children.

"The decision to keep these, these kids from playing these sports, in my opinion, is a very, very poor decision. … They're not thinking of the kids."

According to information from New Brunswick Public Health, under the province's Medical Consent for Minors Act, a parent or legal guardian needs to consent to immunization for minors younger than 16.

However, Public Health adds that there are instances when a youth under 16 can accept health-care treatments without the need for consent from a parent or guardian.

"When a child is sufficiently mature to be considered competent to make a medical decision and the parent/guardian refuses consent, the child can choose to be vaccinated," says Public Health.

Ethicists give conflicting takes

Bowman said even if minors under 16 can consent to being vaccinated, the chances they'll do it if their parents are against it are slim.

Overall, he said, he thinks the mandate puts children at the centre of a debate they don't deserve to be in.

"The parents in most cases are making decisions about vaccination. It then puts the children … in a position where they've got to live with the consequences of their parents' decision," Bowman said.

Kerry Bowman, a biomedical ethicist with the University of Toronto, said a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for children to take part in sports and extracurricular activities puts them at risk of being excluded and ostracized out of no choice of their own. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

"It also pulls these young teenagers into kind of what I would call vaccine wars. And, you know … it could create divisions and social tensions within that group, and so I do see it as problematic. And I think it's a shame that, you know, these young people are going to get caught up in something they have no control over."

Arthur Caplan, the director of biomedical ethics at New York University's school of medicine, said he thinks the mandate on students 12 and older is justified. While students have a right to an education, sports and extracurricular activities are privileges, he said.

"There are still many, many [COVID-19] deaths and people getting in the hospital in North America because they're not vaccinated," Caplan said.

"So I'm going to say yes … it's still prudent to insist on vaccination if you're going to do activities where people are in enclosed spaces, singing, yelling — those spread airborne virus pretty fast."

Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University, said the mandate on school students to get vaccinated against COVID-19 is justified, adding that participating in extracurricular activities is a privilege, and not a right. (AP )

At the same time, Caplan said, he also empathizes with children caught in the middle, with little choice in the matter.

"If you will, they're caught between battling adults, and that's a tough role for kids," Caplan said.

"Normally, parents have to fight with kids who don't want to do the right thing. In this case, some kids are going to be fighting against parents who, I think, don't want to do the right thing."

Norm Bossé, the province's child and youth advocate, said in an email that he was not in a position to comment on the matter without first doing some research and investigation.

"I trust that you will appreciate our position that we do not comment on these issues without having studied the matter carefully," Bossé said.

"Also, the issue will likely devolve into a political matter that we do not participate in."

Correction:

A previous version of this story said students under 12 needed to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to participate in sports and extracurricular activities. They in fact do not need to be vaccinated to do so.

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