This weekend, teachers and school staff in Ontario's Niagara region are getting their first chance at a COVID-19 vaccine, thanks to the recommendation of the area's vaccination co-ordination task force.
The group had previously flagged education workers as a priority and now the timing just made sense, said task force chair Dr. David Dec, a family physician based in Niagara Falls, Ont.
Many educators are under the age of 55 and cannot access mass clinics still aimed at older populations, nor can they receive the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine rolling out in pharmacies and some doctors' offices. But now prioritized, Niagara-area teachers off for the April break next week can easily attend daytime vaccination clinics, Dec said.
As provinces and territories move into the next phase of their coronavirus vaccination campaigns, educators and school staff are starting to join the priority groups becoming eligible for shots. While different approaches are being used thus far, some emerging trendsmay offer lessons for bringing this immunization drive to all education workers.
Our thinking has thus far been to vaccinate the most at-risk populations first, Dec said, starting with long-term care and nursing homes, because "we knew that if you're in that congregate setting, and if you bring that virus into that setting, then it can transmit like wildfire."
Yet, we don't seem to appreciate that classrooms are also congregate settings, he said. "They're a bunch of people bunched-in close together."
This push to prioritize educators is a "proactive approach," according to Dec. "Everybody wants the schools to stay open, so if this is a small part of doing that, then I think it's the right thing to do."
Here is a look at how some jurisdictions are approaching the challenge.
B.C. starts in Surrey
Annie Ohana recalls feeling "absolute elation" upon learning at her union's annual general meeting in March that school staffers in Surrey, B.C., would be prioritized next in the vaccine rollout, with officials citing how hard the Fraser Health region has been hit by COVID-19.
"I remember lining up for the shot on that Sunday and all of us smiling ear-to-ear — behind our masks, of course — and very much [feeling] just relief," Ohana said of getting her first dose two weeks ago.
Yet the L.A. Matheson Secondary School teacher recognizes that it's only a first step, since students, families and other B.C. education colleagues are still waiting for their chance.
"I got an exposure notice Sunday [for] my classroom. About half my class was missing yesterday. It's good to feel that, 'OK well, at least I had the first dose and so hopefully that can help me.' But the reality is my kids don't and many of their family members don't yet," Ohana said.
The campaign hasn't moved as quickly as she'd anticipated out to educators in other B.C. regions, who haven't yet been prioritized. The province's teachers continue to push for safety measures like mask mandates and improved ventilation as well, she said.
"The more protected we are, the more we can keep the schools open."
New Brunswick blitz
Last month, New Brunswick high schools were also put on the priority list. Beginning March 22, the province launched a campaign offering vaccinations to all in-school secondary staffers, which took just over a week. It came ahead of a return to full-time in-person learning for high schoolers that's set for Monday.
"In the region where the vaccination clinics were happening, they closed the school down completely [for the day]. All of the school staff had the opportunity to go to the vaccination clinic, get the vaccines done," said Rick Cuming, president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association and co-president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Federation.
The clinics were very well attended, according to Cuming, who is based in Fredericton. However, one major lesson that emerged, he said, was the need to account for the fact that some people will inevitably experience mild-to-moderate vaccination side-effects such as fever, fatigue and muscle pain — also among the symptoms listed for COVID-19 screening at schools. This was something Ohana, the teacher in Surrey, also noted.
"We have a supply teacher shortage … we certainly feel that effect here in the best of times, and then under this COVID situation, anybody that's showing symptoms can't show up into the school," Cuming said.
"Our schools certainly noticed that in the days that followed the vaccine clinics."
Similar to Ohana, Cuming noted that the education workers not yet vaccinated — New Brunswick's elementary and middle school teachers, administration and support staffers in those schools, as well as bus drivers and supply teachers — are anxiously awaiting their chance to get a shot.
Quebec, Ontario target hot spots
Following Niagara Region's announcement this week about accelerating education sector vaccinations, the Quebec and Ontario governments also took a step in that direction, but primarily focusing on hot spot regions.
In late March, a vaccination blitz targeting two Montreal neighbourhoods seeing rapid spread of the coronavirus variant first detected in the U.K. expanded to include teachers. On Wednesday, Quebec announced plans to start vaccinating Montreal's essential workers — including school and daycare staff — as of this weekend.
"I'm ecstatic to hear that teachers are finally being considered essential workers. That should have been the case a while ago," said Andrew Adams, who teaches Grade 7 and 8 English at Montreal's LaurenHill Academy.
The same day, as Ontario declared a third state of emergency and a new stay-at-home order, it also announced it was opening vaccination access to special education workers provincewide along with school staff in at-risk Toronto and Peel region neighbourhoods, starting next week during the April break. Officials in both Quebec and Ontario said the plan is to scale up vaccination in other regions of concern as soon as supply allows in the coming weeks.
Though the Ontario government's announcement means some educators will soon get their first injections, union leader Harvey Bischof is looking for a more robust rollout beyond Toronto and Peel, which is located west of the city. Those two public health regions closed schools and shifted to remote learning this week.
"If it doesn't reach face-to-face educators in [other provincial] hot spots where there are significant reasons for concern … then it's potentially a case of too little, too late," said Bischof, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, from Brantford, Ont.
Halton, the region northwest of Niagara, announced Friday it is also moving ahead to prioritize school-related workers and child-care staff among the essential workers able to get a COVID-19 vaccine as of April 16.
Bischof said he also wants to see schools in high-risk regions remain in remote learning until three weeks after educators can receive a shot, so the vaccine has time to take effect.
He's heartened to see some regions and local public health units "striking out on their own" beyond decisions being made at the provincial level, like Niagara's move to vaccinate all school staffers and Peel and Toronto shuttering in-person learning this week.
"We've had quite a few school boards across the province now call for the priority vaccination of educators. We've seen some medical officers of health and public health units take really important steps," he said.
Back in B.C., high school teacher Ohana recognizes the pandemic is complex, "a once-in-a-lifetime experience," but she wants politicians and decision-makers to be more willing to pivot their vaccination rollout strategy.
"It was great to see [officials] kind of re-tinker things and say, 'OK, it's not just about age. We need to consider positions and jobs.'"
With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Alison Northcott
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