Several school boards throughout the province have adopted vaccination policies following an official statement from the Alberta Teachers’ Association in favour of reasonable policies that require school staff to be vaccinated.
The ATA issued a statement on Sept. 28 encouraging the government of Alberta or, in its absence, individual school boards, to introduce policies requiring teachers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, provided such policies are consistent with the respective collective agreement and comply with human rights legislation.
“The best way to support student safety at a time when so many students cannot be vaccinated is to ensure that the adults around them are vaccinated,” said ATA president Jason Schilling in the statement.
“We cannot mandate vaccination for our members so we are making it clear that we believe those who can — like the Government of Alberta or individual school boards — should.”
In the week following the statement’s release, several school boards in the province announced that they were implementing their own vaccination mandates, including both public and Catholic boards in Edmonton and Calgary.
Two days after the ATA policy release, the government of Alberta announced a new proof of vaccination policy for all public service employees. And on Oct. 5, a joint letter from Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and Health Minister Jason Copping was distributed to various education stakeholders including school board chairs and superintendents. The letter called for school authorities to develop policies that require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for any adult who enters a school.
“Taking the steps necessary to have these measures in place as soon as possible will help all of us look out for our fellow Albertans and protect our province’s health-care system,” the letter stated.
“Vaccines are among our best weapons to combat this pandemic, and the best way to protect children is to ensure the adults around them are vaccinated. During this critical time we must do all we can to reinforce that message — and to encourage as many Albertans as possible to get vaccinated.”
Prior to formulating and releasing its statement, the ATA received legal advice that helped to define the conditions the ATA believes are required for a reasonable vaccine mandate. These conditions include that mandates are temporary and reviewable, that reasonable accommodations are available and that noncompliance is handled in a way that is nondisciplinary but still protects school safety.
The statement indicated that the Association does not anticipate providing support to members wishing to challenge vaccine mandates that meet the criteria outlined in the statement.
“We will not be part of opposing or challenging vaccine mandates, as long as the policies are reasonable,” Schilling said. “School boards will have to ensure that employee privacy is respected as much as possible and personal information will have to be stored securely, but this is an area where a balancing of rights and responsibilities is warranted.”
Since making the announcement, the ATA has received many calls and emails from members, both in support and opposed to the position taken. Schilling said the organization is unwavering in its support of reasonably structured and implemented vaccination policies.
“Credible legal and medical opinions are clearly weighted in favour of going this direction,” he said. “We are absolutely committed to protecting teachers’ rights. At the same time, we must ensure we’re doing as much as is reasonably possible to protect children and prevent the spread of COVID-19 — our recommendations find that balance.”
Schilling pointed out that the new policy statement is consistent with pre-existing Association policy on vaccinations previously approved by the ATA’s Annual Representative Assembly.
The Association has also introduced directives that mandate proof of vaccination requirements for anyone to attend any in-person events organized by the ATA or any of its subgroups.
Contact tracing returns …with a catch
In other COVID/school-related news, on Oct. 5 the province announced additional protection measures, including public reporting of COVID-19 cases in schools, initiating contact notification in schools, clarifying COVID-19 outbreak definitions and providing rapid testing kits.
“As we have said all along, as the pandemic evolves, we will make adjustments when necessary to keep students and staff safe,” LaGrange said. “The actions we are taking right now will help students to continue learning safely in person as we combat this fourth wave. Keeping students, parents and school communities safe remains our top priority.”
The ATA has been calling for the return of contact tracing for months. And while the news is welcome, it’s troubling that the province won’t be taking over contact tracing until mid-November, placing the responsibility on school administration in the interim, Schilling said.
“With this government, even when they do the right thing, it’s way too late and it places a huge burden on others — in this instance, school administrators and other staff,” Schilling said.
Schilling has sent a letter to LaGrange, copied to the Alberta School Boards Association and the College of Alberta School Superintendents, calling for greater supports for administrators who are being asked to take up contact notification activities until Alberta Health Services sets up its recently dissolved contact tracing program.
In the letter, Schilling calls for the government, school boards and superintendents to support schools and administrators by providing additional funds to support staffing needs, developing templates that can be used, and clearly articulating procedures, policies and definitions related to the notification and testing programs announced. ❚
A Q&A outlining further details related to the vaccination of employees is available at www.teachers.ab.ca > COVID-19 > COVID-19 FAQs.
Members are invited to contact the Association for advice on whether a vaccine mandate meets the above criteria or if they are unable to be vaccinated on the basis of a protected ground under the Alberta Human Rights Act and are not being accommodated to the point of undue hardship.