Should Ontario make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for school?

The Ontario government hasn't said whether COVID-19 vaccines should be mandatory for children aged 12-17 when in-person schooling resumes. Experts have differing opinions on the path ahead.

People for Education says COVID-19 vaccine should be considered for list of mandatory shots

High schools in Quebec were used to administer COVID-19 vaccines to students in June 2021. An education advocacy group would like Ontario to follow a similar strategy this autumn. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The Ontario government hasn't said whether COVID-19 vaccines should be mandatory for children aged 12-17 when in-person schooling resumes, and experts have different opinions on what it should do.

Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, said making the vaccine mandatory for children 12 and older before the return to school could have unintended consequences.

"I'd rather we cajole, incentivize and educate people to voluntarily accept the vaccine, rather than bludgeon them with the brute force of the law, " Deonandan said.

"Because then we push away people and maybe push them toward a hardcore anti-vax camp."

In Ontario, school-aged children must be immunized against diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, meningitis and whooping cough — unless they have a valid exemption. Children born in 2010 or later must also be vaccinated against chickenpox.

As of Monday in Ottawa, 79 per cent of youth age 12-17 have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 20 per cent are fully vaccinated, according to Ottawa Public Health.

That is well above the provincial number of 60 per cent with one dose, which is why there is a push on across Ontario to vaccinate as many children as possible before a potential return to class in the fall.

WATCH | Making vaccines mandatory for students over 12 may 'backfire,' epidemiologist says

Making vaccines mandatory for students 12 and older may ‘backfire,’ epidemiologist says

2 years ago
Duration 0:53
Featured VideoRaywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, says making vaccines mandatory for students 12 and older may have unintended consequences, pushing parents who are already hesitant further away.

Deonandan said he understands some concerns from parents about the use of a relatively new vaccine on children, but doesn't share those concerns.

He said clinic trials have shown the COVID-19 vaccine to be very effective and safe on children, but wider use will almost inevitably lead to more people experiencing rare side effects and that could spur panic given the age of the population in question.

"Making it compulsory at this stage in the game might cause more societal harm than it does produce public health good," Denonandan said.

He said ventilation, masking, and other public health measures should be part of the discussion for this September and adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of mandatory shots could be revisited next year.

Annie Kidder.
Annie Kidder suggested the Ontario government consider making the COVID-19 vaccine a mandatory shot for school-age students along with vaccines for polio, measles, mumps, and others. (People for Education)

Candidate for mandatory vaccine

Annie Kidder, executive director for People for Education, said a task force of health experts, parents and educators and students should be working on Ontario's plan for school re-entry this September — including whether the shot should be mandatory.

"It should be considered as a candidate for mandatory vaccination for the same reason that measles, mumps and rubella are on that list, which is that they are all very, very contagious diseases," Kidder said.

"Particularly for the adults who work in the school, they want to know we've done everything we can from a policy perspective to make schools safe."

Kidder said she'd like to see plans to use high schools and elementary schools as accessible vaccine clinics in the first weeks of the return to class.

Karen Littlewood from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation said the union wants the Ontario government to take its direction from health experts, and the union would support those recommendations.

Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, is encouraging people between the ages of 12 and 17 to get vaccinated before classes resume in September. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Provincial plan in development

Littlewood also said the union, whose members include education support staff as well as high school teachers, would support masking to continue in the fall, as well as improved air filtration and smaller class sizes.  

Ottawa Public Health, which implements the province's school-age immunization program locally, also referred CBC News to the province regarding whether to make the vaccine mandatory.

In an email statement, Ontario's Ministry of Education said it continues to strongly encourage everyone who is eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine to protect schools and help end the pandemic.

It said Minister Stephen Lecce will soon announce a plan to deliver a "more normal, full-time, in-person learning experience," including $1.6 billion in spending to improve safety at schools.