Tuesday December 21, 2021 | LANGFORD, BC [Updated at 8 pm]
by Mary P Brooke | Island Social Trends
Current employees of the Sooke School District (SD62) will not be subject to a COVID vaccination mandate but new employees will be required to show proof of vaccination, it was announced today by SD62 Board Chair Ravi Parmar.
A press conference was called around 8:45 am for an 11 am in-person media session. Windows in the SD62 board room at the school district’s administration building were kept open for ventilation and everyone wore masks. About six media attended in person, and other media phoned in.
In the room for the announcement were Board Vice-Chair Bob Beckett, Secretary-Treasurer Harold Cull, and Human Resources executive director Dan Haley, as well as staffer Sue Grundy. But it was Parmar who commanded the session.
Parmar apologized at the outset of the 30-minute press conference to “staff and students for intruding on their holidays”, and just days ahead of Christmas, acknowledging the “challenging the uncertain times”, so why now?
The announcement could have simply been a news release at a time when the Omicron variant is rapidly spreading in communities. It’s about leadership.
Evidently SD62 has ‘struck first’ in terms of being the first Board of Education in BC to declare a vaccine mandate (for only new hires), and that’s newsworthy in the big scheme of things in BC education.
Parmar referred to “new restrictions last week” as to new public health orders that restrict the size of gatherings. And as it turns out, SD62 got in just under the wire today as the Provincial Health Officer has tightened those gathering restrictions even further today (including that all indoor organized gatherings of any size should be cancelled).
The new-hires mandate decision:
“It was sparked by a conversation that ensued after the Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry announced a mandate for those working in hospitals and seniors care facilities,” said Chair Parmar. “And it further ensued, when the Province of British Columbia announced a mandate for public servants,” he told media.
“In October, the Board of Education here in the Sooke School District — like many other boards — began to have discussions around the vaccine mandate. In the last couple of months we’ve seen many boards decide not to head in this direction. In October, SD62 Board of Education directed the Superintendent to begin consultations on a vaccine mandate,” he said.
Parmar said that Superintendent Scott Stinson consulted fairly widely, including “employee groups, Indigenous rights holders, students, the public, and of course public health”, though most would be hard-pressed to learn how much of the public participated in this.
Parents were not mentioned as a contacted group, other than through the SD62 SPEAC (parent advisory council), which is not the same as contacting parents directly.
No other school district boards of education in BC have taken a decision to impose a mandate. SD62’s mandate is narrowly applied, applicable to only new hires. Hiring is likely on pause over the year-end season.
Concern about employee levels:
SD62 does face hiring challenges, notably for bus drivers, but also French Immersion teachers, teachers on call, and others.
And yet today, Parmar also said employment levels are precarious. He pointed out the shortage of bus drivers in particular, which has been going on for a while. Generally speaking, bus drivers are older people, who in the case of the ongoing pandemic may be worried about exposure to a large and continuing number of unvaccinated people (which has included children age 5 to 11 years, until only very recently).
Vaccination for children ages to 11 years began December 4, and so far (to December 20) 17,225 children in Island Health have been vaccinated (which would be only a first dose of the pediatric Pfizer vaccine).
Several bus routes have been cancelled through the fall season, generally on short notice (popping up as notices on Twitter), leaving some students and families stranded for options to get to or from school.
Every year the issue of transportation services is debated at the board and committee level, as to costs and expectation of service, as well as the mechanics of service delivery. A few years ago a more complex computerized system was installed for administering the complex bus routes that carry students to schools in Langford, Colwood and Sooke within a broad geographical region.
An anonymous survey was launched for staff in SD62, to glean their thoughts on mandatory vaccination. About 50 percent of staff participated, asking as to their vaccination status, said Parmar.
A half-of-population response shows some reluctance as to interfacing fully with board and administration on this contentious matter — elements of privacy, medical realm, personal rights, and security of employment likely being among the areas of concern.
SPEAC — the parent advisory council that governs on behalf of the PAC’s at each school — advised the SD62 Superintendent on two sides of the fence, i.e. supporting a staff mandate but fueling a position that was prominent in Chair Parmar’s remarks today, that employees might leave if forced to be vaccinated.
“The feedback we received from our member PAC’s was primarily positive towards a mandate,” said SPEAC President Melissa Da Silva told Island Social Trends today. Yet she added: “With some of our members expressing concern that a mandate could negatively impact certain employee groups if individuals in those groups had not been vaccinated but were required to be (if a mandate were implemented), the district could lose teachers, EAs, bus drivers and other support staff which could have a negative impact on student education.
Da Silva said SPEAC was pleased that the organization’s feedback was included in the information-gathering process. But the fearful approach that employees might leave their jobs over a vaccine mandate could have been taken overboard by the Board of Education. In these times, and especially among such a relatively highly-committed profession as teaching and education, seeing people leave their employment in droves is highly unlikely.
It does not appear that parents were consulted directly.
Kids in class:
The school district seems steadfast in not wanting to return to remote learning, or even hybrid. They want kids in school. The underlying reason for that is the socioeconomic support that schools provide for working parents, in addition to the belief that in-person learning is superior to remote learning for most learners.
It’s also to not overload teaching staff, who in the first year of the pandemic had to pivot immediately to providing curriculum remotely and then in many cases also had to run parallel in-classroom and hybrid education delivery.
Earlier this fall, school districts were advised by the provincial government (by Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside on October 24, 2021) that each district’s Board of Education would be responsible to decide about any vaccine mandate, due to the employer-employee relationship with staff. That includes all staff, i.e. teachers, teachers-on-call (TOCs), education assistants (EAs), office staff, bus drivers, and all other personnel who receive a paycheque from SD62.
Delivering public education is required by provincial law, and is described as an essential service. Teachers are essential workers. So it was interesting to note, earlier this year, that the president of the BC Teachers Federation, Teri Mooring, said some teachers were surprised, during the early part of the pandemic, to find that they were required to be on the job. (See BCTF interview with Island Social Trends, September 6, 2021)
The requirement to be in an unknown COVID-transmitting environment was causing a great deal of distress; teachers are devoted to their profession but were then faced with a potential challenge to their very health and well-being (including possibly taking the virus home to their families).
Last year for the current SD62 board:
Today this was Ravi Parmar’s first media session since being re-elected Chair of the SD62 board at last week’s December 14 board meeting. He has occupied the position of chair for now five terms (board executive elections are held annually just ahead of the calendar year-end).
The next municipal and school board trustee elections come up in October 2022, and current SD62 trustees are already jockeying for position.
The Board’s tight-scope vaccine mandate for only “new hires” was decided at a Special Meeting of the Board (held in-camera) on Friday December 17, at which the renewed executive was in place (i.e. no change — Parmar returned as Chair, and Trustee Bob Beckett as Vice-Chair).
Overall, no change for existing employees:
The only people directly impacted by today’s announcement are, oddly, those who are not yet (if ever) employees of SD62. However, it could be seen as ‘a shot over the bow’ to currently unvaccinated staff that this is the direction the Board leaning. Perhaps not with a mandate, but with peer pressure to encourage vaccination.
It should be noted, that with children having been strong vectors of COVID spread until now (vaccinations for kids age 5 to 11 are now gaining in number), it would be unusual if many staff had not already chosen to get the COVID vaccine shots. They are, afterall, on the front line of contact with a largely unvaccinated group, who bring their family and community-contact scenario to the school space every school day.
So today’s big announcement was delivered with a tough stance using kid gloves. SD62 is in favour of vaccination, will only hire people in future who are vaccinated, but won’t directly pressure existing staff.
It was clear from Parmar today that the board is worried about scaring off any potential new hires, and will have worried that existing employees might leave their jobs if forced to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Today Parmar noted the bus driver shortage today as something that could essentially crash the bus transportation system if the number of drivers erodes any further (SD62 bus driver shortage in October was making headlines). And yet the mandate is a requirement now for any new hires.
It’s a tough spot for the school district. It also begs the question about the entire bus transportation load that SD62 bears; technically speaking, under the BC School Act, they are not required to provide transportation to and from school.
Following the PHO:
Today Parmar said the board’s decision about any further directions on mandating the COVID vaccine upon existing staff (which is about 1,800 employees) would only be made if the need were indicated by Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry (and Superintendent Stinson has said many times during the pandemic that SD62 will follow public health orders and not waver).
But that statement today about any change of tack on a vaccine mandate for staff really doesn’t run with much steam; Dr Henry left the decision to boards of education in the first place (likely under considerable pressure from Cabinet, given the potentially contentious union issues with teachers and CUPE staff), and now the entire fall semester has passed.
Those who are going to continue to seek full vaccination (e.g. with a third dose or booster shot now or early in the new year), are going to carry on along that path.
Parmar encouraged all teachers, staff, and families to be vaccinated; the board has no stats on how many actually are vaccinated, but it could be as high as 95 percent, according to statements made today.
The board is not intending to support the idea of being unvaccinated, they just don’t seem to feel they have legal room to accept the responsibility for commanding employees to require a medical procedure (i.e. vaccination) in order to maintain existing employment.
SD62 received legal advice from the BC Public School Employers Association, and the buck seems to stop with that.
Mandatory COVID vaccination for teachers left up to school districts (October 8, 2021)