Monday January 31, 2022 | LANGFORD, BC [Updated February 3, 2022 at 4:30 pm & February 15, 2022 at 2 pm]
by Mary P Brooke | Island Social Trends
Today SD62 Chair Ravi Parmar started off the week with a blast of COVID reality for the staff of the growing school district.
A morning news conference was focused on the SD62 Board of Education’s decision to “implement a proof of vaccination procedure for all existing employees”.
This comes on the heels of the December 21, 2021 announcement that newly hired employees would need to show proof of COVID vaccination. At that time, the SD62 Superintendent was charged with preparing for the possibility of requiring all staff to prove their vaccination status.
Leading with how “challenged” the SD62 school community has been by the recent Omicron variant during the ongoing COVID pandemic, today SD62 Chair Parmar announced the requirement for all staff to provide proof of two doses of COVID vaccine.
Note: BC Centre for Disease Control says on their Proof of Vaccination page: “You do not need a third dose or booster dose to be considered fully vaccinated on your BC Vaccine Card.”
However, some vaccine types — such as the Janssen product (by Johnson & Johnson), has been said by public health in the past to require just one dose. Island Social Trends has inquired into this matter with BC Health regarding the definition of ‘fully dosed’ for Janssen, and the answer today (February 1) is that one dose is considered to be full vaccination.
“Those who have received a first dose of Janssen are eligible to receive a booster dose. You will be invited to get a booster dose about two months after you received a first dose of Janssen,” said a BC Government representative today, referencing guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI). The booster shot is offered as an mRNA-type vaccine “in order to get the best protection possible”.
The requirement comes into effect on March 7, 2022 in abiding by a six-week contractual arrangement with the Sooke Teachers Association (STA).
“Our board has heard load and clear that our students, staff and families want us to take further steps to prioritize the health and safety of our schools from this pandemic. Keeping in-person learning is a priority,” said Parmar. The board met with partner groups, and wrote to over 1,862 employees, as well as students, families and communities “about this important decision the board has made”.
“We have directed Superintendent Scott Stinson to implement a full COVID-19 proof of vaccination procedures for all employees in our district,” said Parmar this morning.
By March 7 all employees must have provided proof of full vaccination against COVID-19. Thereby, staff are presumed to have time to receive their vaccination shots (two doses of mRNA or one dose of Janssen).
If employees choose not to provide vaccine information, there will be a rapid testing process made available. Any staff who choose not to cooperate with that option, will be placed on extraordinary leave without pay, the board chair said today.
Staff vaccination level:
Evidently over 90 percent of staff are already fully-vaccinated (by definition, two doses, at this time, though booster doses are being administered BC-wide to all persons age 12+ years).
A voluntary survey done by SD62 last fall — regarding impacts of the COVID pandemic experience on staff, including asking for their optional declaration of vaccination status — was participated in by about 50 percent of staff.
There are about 800 teachers in the SD62 school district, with the other approximately 1,160 staff being administration, educational assistants, custodians, bus drivers, and others.
Superintendent Stinson is currently finalizing a a safe and secure legal procedure to gather employees vaccine data to meet privacy obligations. Later this week, all employees will be sent instructions, and a unique electronic link to provide federal or provincial proof of vaccine information.
This procedure will comply with SD62’s obligation to comply with individuals for medical reasons or Human Rights Code of BC or Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, said Parmar today.
Employers may choose to adopt vaccination policies for their workplaces and are responsible for how they are appropriately implemented.
“As a board of education, we strongly believe this step will play a role in keeping our schools safe and healthy for all students and staff,” said Parmar today.
“The board continues to explore ways to further our efforts to keep our schools safe and healthy for all students and staff, and will continue to adjust our practices as necessary based on the latest COVID-19 information, advice and guidance from the Public Health Officer.”
“We strongly, strongly, encourage all those who are eligible, to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” said Parmar, who also today said he never expected as a school board chair to be having to deliver this sort of news.
Not a mandate:
On February 8, Island Social Trends requested and received a followup from SD62 Board Chair Ravi Parmar, emphasizing that the new vaccination requirement is not a mandate:
“The Board announced a Proof of Vaccination Procedure that comes into effect March 7, 2022 until June 30, 2022 with the possibility of an extension if deemed necessary,” said Parmar.
“To clarify, this is not a mandate. There are options for staff who choose not to disclose their status as being fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by March 7, 2022. We continue to monitor advice from the PHO and Ministry as we progress through the school year and will adjust our policies accordingly.”
Sooke Teachers Association response:
Sooke Teachers Association (STA) President Jennifer Anderson today said that “the new plan falls short of what teachers say they need to feel safe in Sooke schools”.
In a news release today, she said: “Vaccinations are an important line of defense, but only one of many available to us. So much more still needs to be done to address Sooke teachers’ health and safety concerns,” said Anderson in a news release. “What they need to feel safe is for immediate, tangible action to be taken to address the outstanding safety issues, particularly around ventilation and access to N95 masks.”
STA says that out of 28 schools in the Sooke School District (note: SD62 lists 27 schools, but additional buildings are used for the Westshore Learning programs and two more schools are under construction for opening in September 2022), only two currently have ventilation systems that meet the minimum standard of MERV-13 filters (per the Provincial COVID-19 Communicable Disease Guidelines for K-12 Settings).
COVID is clearly understood by public health to be an airborne virus, with the currently dominant Omicron variant being particularly transmissible as it nestles in the nasal cavity and upper airways without having to go further into the body.
“The District has not committed to a timeline for HVAC upgrades to meet the minimum standards,” the STA president says. Meanwhile, several times Superintendent Stinson has said that, essentially, schools are working on it. Budget considerations (both installation and ongoing maintenance, including skilled staff for maintenance) are part of the ongoing scenario.
“We have teachers working in spaces with no acceptable ventilation whatsoever, and they have been repeatedly denied access to HEPA filters upon request,” said Anderson today. She feels teachers are put at risk in this regard, when going into schools and feeling “utterly unsupported” by the District. “It’s wearing them down in a way I’ve never seen before, and I am growing increasingly concerns with the high rates of teacher burnout and the likelihood of us facing a real crisis around replacement teacher shortages here in Sooke.”
STA is calling on SD62 to:
- provide an adequate supply of N95 masks to all Sooke teachers;
- expedite the distribution of rapid tests; and
- develop and communicate a plan and timeline for expeditiously addressing the significant number of schools with inadequate ventilation systems.
Impacts on school attendance:
As the Omicron wave hit in December and through the school winter break period into January, there was a noticeable reduction in student attendance through this month of January, says SD62 administration.
In the first week back (January 10 to 14), 14 percent of students were away on the first day, said Superintendent Stinson. By the end of the next week, on January 21, the student absence rate was 19 percent throughout SD62. “We hovered in the 17 to 18 percent range over the course of the week,” Stinson told Island Social Trends at that time.
At that point (January 21), SD62 saw some of their middle school numbers “creep up”, said Stinson, adding: “So absences are beginning to spread mostly between elementary and middle.”
Some schools — such as the elementary French Immersion Ecole John Stubbs Memorial (Grades K-8) — saw 30 percent absentee rate, though Stinson clarified that was not necessarily due to students being ill but also parental decisions to keep their children home from the classroom environment.
“In some cases where there are a large number of students absent from a particular class we are reaching out to the families to get more information about why students are away,” said Stinson on January 21.
“This is what we are basing our information on as we consult with the Medical Health Officer and the Rapid Response Team about the potential for a health closure,” he said.
Today SD62 Chair Ravi Parmar said teacher absentee levels have not yet reached a level where a ‘functional closure’ of schools has been made necessary.
Today about 120 staff were absent from SD62, says Stinson.
In some cases, administrative staff who hold a teaching licence have gone out to the schools to deliver curriculum in recent weeks, including some of the associate superintendents.
The Sooke School District 62 (SD62) delivers public education to families in Langford, Colwood, Sooke, Highlands, East Sooke, west of Sooke out to Port Renfrew, and parts of View Royal.
School buildings are located in Langord, Colwood and Sooke. Bussing of children to and from school is a significant organizational effort and expense for SD62.
SD62 is one of the largest employers in the west shore area.
SD62 trustees vote themselves a pay increase (January 26, 2022)
SD62 student absence rate higher on first day back (January 10, 2022)
SD62 interrupts winter break with ‘new hires’ vaccine mandate message (December 21, 2021)
SD62 Board meeting: COVID, child care, CUPE input (November 23, 2021)
===== ABOUT THE WRITER:
Mary P Brooke, B.Sc. is the editor of Island Social Trends. She has been following the news of SD62 at the board and committee level since 2014, attending almost all meetings over the years and visiting most of the schools in Langford, Colwood and Sooke during tours and media events.
Mary’s now-grown children attended schools in SD61, SD62 and SD72.
Ms Brooke was active on Parent Advisory Committees at Margaret Jenkins Elementary (in Fairfield – SD61) and John Muir Elementary (in Sooke – SD62), primarily providing leadership to see infrastructure improvements to sidewalks and parking.