The Central Okanagan Board of Education has adopted a COVID vaccine mandate for school district support staff and teachers.
After a debate that extended over three hours at Wednesday’s board of education meeting, the vote on the resolution was 5-2 in favour.
Trustees Amy Geistlinger and Lee-Ann Tiede voted against the mandate, while trustees Norah Bowman,Wayne Broughton, Chantelle Desrosiers and board chair Moyra Baxter voted in support.
While each trustee spoke to the resolution, the debate also included a public question/comment session specifically for this issue that generated more than 65 responses via Zoom over a 90-minute time segment.
The meeting itself attracted a Zoom audience of more than 900 viewers, with the public comments made at the meeting overwhelmingly opposed to the mandate resolution.
Trustee Norah Bowman said her support for the mandate came from the school board’s ethical and legal responsibility to school district employees and students to provide a safe workplace.
Bowman said the school district has taken many steps to achieve that goal, to keep schools open during the pandemic from such health measures as mask wearing to air ventilation improvements to enhanced hygiene practices, and she called the vaccine mandate a positive addition to that initiative.
“What we do know is vaccinated people are infected with a viral load, are less likely to require hospital care, are less likely to die,” said Bowman.
She cited while there are divisive debates ongoing about personal choice being violated and scientific data challenges, she said teachers or support staff will have a choice of rapid testing or getting vaccinated, following guidelines set out by letters of agreement on vaccine mandates struck between the province and both the BC Teachers Federation and Canadian Union of Public Employees in December.
A third option will be to take an unpaid leave of absence until June without losing their job come the next school year.
Trustee Julia Fraser echoed Bowman’s sentiments, noting that WorksafeBC, which oversees workplace safety in B.C. wanted all its administrative office employees to be vaccinated.
“I can’t believe both sides of this vaccine argument can be right when being so contradictory in nature, so I believe in the research, data and expertise of people like Dr. Bonnie Henry, (Interior Health) and (Chief Public Health Officer of Canada) Dr. Theresa Tam,” Fraser said.
Trustee Wayne Broughton said he struggled with the mandate decision, saying it was the kind of issue he did not expect to be faced with as a school trustee.
“For me in the end, I found no good reason to avoid being vaccinated with the exception of someone with medical conditions. It is one more layer of protection that helps us,” he said.
Broughton said he has talked to many people on both sides of the debate, and he found arguments about vaccines causing discrimination in schools and creating conflict and divisiveness in school as “ringing hollow to me.”
“People who are unvaccinated have made a choice, and choices have consequences,” Broughton said.
“You can get tested if you choose that route going forward instead. It is not a question of anyone losing their job.”
Broughton added that society has adopted mandates to wear seat belts when driving, to limit public smoking due to health concerns such as lung cancer.
“There is no guarantee that a seat belt will save your life in an accident, or by not smoking you won’t get lung cancer, but we accept these measures because they do make a difference.. it is about finding the right balance and what is important for our community and our schools,” he said.
“We have to do the best we can to protect our students and staff, and that is why I will vote in favour of this mandate.”
Trustee Chantelle Desrosiers said the board of education’s role is to look out for the best interests of the Central Okanagan school community, not argue about a vaccine mandate in the context of individual rights.
“I’m not sure when this debate became only about self, but I choose to make it about our communities…and above all else to protect our children,” she said.
Speaking against the vaccine mandate, trustee Lee-Ann Tiede raised concerns about adverse reactions people might have to the vaccine, and what liability the school district would face in that situation.
Tiede talked about a lady she spoke with who saw her 22-year-old daughter get vaccinated, and subsequently suffer from paralysis that has left her unable to work for a year.
“If we encourage or coerce out staff to get these mandates and that happens to a staff member, where does the liability lie and who accepts the responsibility for something like that happening?” she questioned.
Tiede argued there is clear evidence that the vaccines are not working to curb variant outbreaks of COVID, and felt the school district does not have the authority to impose medical decision on any staff.
“No one around this table has the medical history to be able to encourage anyone to get a vaccine shot against their wishes.”
The school board was also informed the staff vaccination survey found an 87.6 per cent rate for employees, and 89.6 per cent for casual part- and full-time employees. That compares to the 83 per cent vaccination level in the Central Okanagan.
Tiede also questioned since being vaccinated does not prevent you from transmitting or getting COVID, why would testing be limited only to the unvaccinated.
Tiede was joined in opposition to the mandate by trustee Amy Geistlinger, who felt they can’t overlook the seemingly majority opposition to the mandate expressed in emails, voicemail messages and letters to the school district.
“As a trustee, I am supposed to represent the views and concerns of the public, and if the public is overwhelmingly opposed to this mandate…when that voice is reasonable and rational, I don’t see a reason to not respect it,” Geistlinger said.
She said transmission rates continue to be minimal for COVID in local schools without the mandate, and will continue to be safe with the existing protocols already in place.
Central Okanagan Public Schools superintendent/CEO Kevin Kaardal addressed the liability issue several times during the debate, saying school districts are protected by provincial government legislation and are not in legal jeopardy as long as provincial public health guidelines are being followed.
After the vote, Susan Bauhart, president of the Central Okanagan Teachers Association, raised several questions which neither the board or school district staff had immediate answers for.
Those questions included what will the timeline be for getting the two required vaccinations, what exemptions will be granted such as for individuals with medical conditions, how will privacy issues be dealt with, and what about delays in accessing preferred COVID vaccines of choice.
“There are no simple answers to those questions…there will be further discussions with regards to the agreements in place and testing protocols as we go forward,” responded Kaardal.