PEI·Schools Under Stress

Some P.E.I. educators support mandatory vaccines for school staff

A questionnaire by CBC News found almost 70 per cent of education professionals who responded believe vaccines should be mandatory for school staff, and more than 60 per cent of the respondents from P.E.I. agreed.

Nationally, nearly 70% of respondents to CBC questionnaire sent to educators supported mandatory vaccination

Nationally, nearly 70 per cent of respondents to CBC questionnaire sent to educators supported mandatory vaccination. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

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 questionnaire by CBC News found almost 70 per cent of education professionals who responded nationally believe vaccines should be mandatory for school staff, and more than 60 per cent of respondents from P.E.I. agreed. 

That prompted CBC to ask health and education officials on P.E.I. if mandatory COVID-19 vaccines have been, or will be considered. 

A teacher reading to her students on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 at Athena Consolidated School in Summerside, P.E.I. (CBC)

In April, CBC News emailed a questionnaire to 1,400 educational professionals across P.E.I., and received 153 responses.

Respondents were asked what their role was at the school, and in the case of P.E.I., 97 were classroom teachers, 38 were teaching support staff (education assistant, librarian), 11 were administrative staff, including principals and vice principals, and seven were maintenance or facility staff. 

Mandatory vaccines

One of the strongest responses on the questionnaire was around mandatory vaccines for school staff on P.E.I., with about two-thirds of respondents supporting the idea.

But mandatory COVID-19 vaccines are not, currently, on the radar of health and education officials on P.E.I., who were contacted by the CBC for this story.

Stickers like this in common seating areas help promote social distancing at Charlottetown Rural High School. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

P.E.I.'s chief public health officer was asked about mandatory vaccinations for COVID-19 at a standing committee meeting in January 2021.

Dr. Heather Morrison pointed to P.E.I.'s high rates for childhood immunizations, and noted a high percentage of Islanders opt to get the flu vaccine every year.

"I don't anticipate us getting to a position where we would be having to have that conversation about mandatory vaccines," Morrison told the committee.

Dr. Heather Morrison, P.E.I.'s chief public health officer, speaking to a standing committee in January 2021. (CBC)

No tracking who gets jab

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning wrote:

"At this time, we are not considering mandatory vaccines. Our approach would be similar to the provincial vaccination program to offer COVID vaccination to all age-eligible residents of P.E.I. We will consult with the CPHO to ensure school staff have access to the latest information on COVID vaccines and to help reduce any barriers that may be preventing them from getting vaccinated should they arise."

The department also said that because the vaccination is not mandatory, they have not asked school staff to notify their employers when, or if, they have been vaccinated, so there will be no tracking of vaccination rates.

It also said that it had not been approached by any of the unions representing school staff, or the teachers federation, about making COVID-19 vaccines mandatory. 

Masked students attend class at Bloomfield Elementary School in Prince Edward Island. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

When contacted by CBC News, the P.E.I. Teachers' Federation sent this response: "Unfortunately, we will not be able to comment as we are currently in negotiations and traditionally stay out of media while this process occurs."

Workplace safety

A Toronto employment lawyer who has seen the results of the CBC questionnaire said he is getting calls "non-stop" on the issue of mandatory vaccines, which he says is currently the hottest topic in employment law.

Because we're in a global pandemic, and under occupational health and safety laws, an employer is required to keep their workplace safe.—Ryan Watkins, employment lawyer

Ryan Watkins said, in his opinion, Canadian employers can make COVID-19 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, who's a partner at the law firm of Whitten & Lublin.

"One way we can do it with a global pandemic is to ensure that our workforce is vaccinated, save for the exceptions of a medical, or religious accommodation.

"I believe that employers, and in this case a school board, can require that teachers and students are vaccinated."

Toronto employment lawyer Ryan Watkins says the number one question he's been getting as an employment lawyer is: can vaccines be mandatory? (Submitted by Ryan Watkins)

Watkins said in the case of school staff, the situation could be more complicated because of the unions involved.

"That's going to be the interesting part to all this, the union obviously has a big part to play in terms of teachers, and so we'll have to see where they fall on the side of this," Watkins said. 

"A majority of [respondent] teachers do want to get vaccinated and believe in the policy. Although the numbers aren't as high as I thought, it is still a majority. So I think we'll see unions go along with their members with respect to this." 

Deadlier than influenza

Watkins said there are employers in Canada who have already made COVID-19 vaccines mandatory in their workplaces, in the financial and manufacturing sectors. 

"We've seen a lot of cases in the news about manufacturing, I think, because of the fact that it's difficult to social distance," Watkins said.

"So one of the ways to alleviate that, and get back to a proper supply chain, is ensuring that your workforce is vaccinated." 

A health-care worker prepares to give a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Whisperwood Villa in Charlottetown. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Watkins said he expects there will be a movement toward mandatory vaccines, including in schools.

"I think at the end of the day, in terms of what we're hearing from global health experts, is that the vaccination is the quickest way to get back to a normal life," Watkins said.

"That goes across workplaces as well, so I think in all sectors, including in education."

Watkins said there have been court challenges around the influenza vaccine, but said the decisions in those cases have been mixed, and because COVID-19 has been proven to be more contagious, more deadly than the flu, it's not the same.

Watkins said there is reluctance from some employers to make the vaccination mandatory. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Still, Watkins said there is reluctance from some employers to make vaccination mandatory.

"I think there's always a balance that employers want to make in terms of mandating an employee to do something, especially when it's related to their body, and their personal choice, and privacy," Watkins said. 

'Not considered essential'

School staff on P.E.I. were eligible to make appointments to receive their COVID-19 vaccine in April, as part of Phase 2 of the vaccination rollout for the province. 

The Chief Public Health Office said they are considered front-line workers who interact with the public in person and cannot work virtually.

School staff on P.E.I. were eligible to make appointments to receive their COVID-19 vaccine in April, as part of Phase 2 of the vaccination rollout for the province. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

In response to the CBC questionnaire, some wondered why school staff on P.E.I. weren't more of a priority.

  • "Educational workers are in contact with more families in a close environment than almost any other profession. Their risk to COVID exposure is extremely high, yet we are not considered essential or front-line workers and were not placed near the top of the vaccination line. This shows poor judgment on behalf of the decision makers."
  • "I feel nurses should have been presented in schools and all staff vaccinated immediately when vaccines rolled out."
  • "Feel that all school staff, regardless of age and medical conditions should be some of the first to be vaccinated since we work in some of the most populated buildings in the province."

In other parts of Canada, there have been many different approaches to getting teachers vaccinated.

Feeling vulnerable

In the comments section of the questionnaire, school staff on P.E.I. said they feel vulnerable in their workplace during the pandemic, and only the lack of community spread on the Island was protecting them from a COVID-19 outbreak in their schools. 

Last fall, a similar questionnaire found Island teachers were facing increasing workloads, added stress, and difficulties managing public health guidelines while in the classroom.

In the recent questionnaire, completed in April, school staff reported they continue to feel that increased workload, along with the vulnerability of working daily around hundreds of others. 

A classroom at Bloomfield Elementary School on P.E.I. showing adaptations for public health protocols, including separated distanced desks, hand sanitizer and a face mask. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

Out of 153 respondents from P.E.I., about 30 added comments, reflecting what their experience has been like. 

  • "The whole idea of cohorts in schools sounds good and looks good on paper but is not truly possible in an elementary school. We are very fortunate there hasn't been community spread (thus far) on P.E.I. If there had been, schools would have been a great place for it to gain traction."
  • "I have found it a little challenging that I go to a building with 700 people but I couldn't have my family over at times. Seems to be a confusing message. Even though we tell the kids the rules about mask wearing, a lot of them don't wear them over their noses."
  • "More resources should have been applied to create safer class sizes in schools. 'COVID doesn't spread in schools' seems to be a common refrain but no credit for that is given to school staff who have taken on all of the extra responsibility for ensuring that students wear masks, socially distance, sanitize their desks, stay in cohorts etc. Online teaching is challenging but teaching in schools with all of these new protocols is exhausting."
  • "Your survey mostly appears to target teachers and other staff who work in classrooms. No consideration to admin assistants who are continually bombarded by other staff, students, parents, and multiple outside agencies all day long. At least classroom staff have their own cohort and are in a small controlled situation. What about bus drivers, etc."
Reminders for social distancing now lay on the floor inside P.E.I. schools. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

School vaccinations

Several Canadian provinces require mandatory vaccines for school-age children against certain diseases.

Ontario and New Brunswick require immunization for diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps and rubella for all students, while Manitoba requires a measles vaccination.

Out of 153 respondents from P.E.I., about 30 added comments, reflecting what their experience has been like in Island schools during the pandemic. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

The issue of mandatory vaccination was raised in the P.E.I. Legislature in 2019 by Liberal MLA Heath MacDonald.

Then Health Minister James Aylward said government takes the lead from the provincial chief public health officer and that the office was "not suggesting that recommendation."

Post-secondary institutions

In the United States, many colleges are now making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for their students.

Student athletes with the UPEI women's rugby team take part in a study session in winter 2021. UPEI said it has no position at this time on mandatory vaccines, but is monitoring developments across the country. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

In Canada, the idea is also being discussed.

CBC News posed the question of mandatory COVID-19 vaccines to two post-secondary institutions on Prince Edward Island.

A spokesperson from UPEI wrote: "UPEI continues to work with the P.E.I. Chief Public Health Office to ensure public health guidance is being followed. UPEI has no position at this time on mandatory vaccines, but is monitoring developments across the country."

And a similar response from Holland College: "We are still consulting with the CPHO about our plans for September and we do not have a position regarding mandatory vaccinations."

Methodology

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.

More from CBC P.E.I.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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