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Column: Should teachers get priority for COVID-19 vaccines?

Teachers and other school staff older than 50 or who have compromised immune systems are vulnerable.
Tracy Sherlock crop
Tracy Sherlock writes about education, parenting and social issues in her columns at the Richmond News.

When B.C. rolled out its vaccine plan, essential workers other than those in healthcare or long-term care were not given special priority.

Because age is the greatest risk factor for severe COVID-19, B.C.’s plan announced last month is basically prioritized backwards by age. First up are residents of long-term care, people older than 80, Indigenous people who live in remote communities or are seniors, and healthcare workers.

After that, eligibility goes down in five-year increments and the schedule is dependent on vaccine supply. Certain high-risk people – like those who have had organ transplants – move up the queue slightly, but no special consideration was given to essential workers outside of hospitals.

The plan calls for everyone in B.C. who wants a vaccine to get one by September, but almost immediately after B.C. announced its plan, the vaccine supply trickled to a halt, where it stayed for three weeks. Just this week, it is supposed to pick up again.

When the plan was announced, B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said B.C. teachers would be disappointed, but they would understand that the most vulnerable to death and serious illness must be vaccinated first.

She said if teachers were not prioritized for vaccines, safety in schools needed to be improved.

“There is no denying that teachers are stressed, anxious, and even afraid. We do not have the layers of protection in our schools that exist in other environments,” Mooring said.

“We must have a mandatory mask mandate, we must have better physical distancing measures, and we must have ventilation upgrades for our classrooms. Schools need the same safety measures as every single other workplace.”

Since then, B.C. has beefed up the mask mandate in schools, now requiring students in middle and secondary schools to wear masks in their classrooms, except when seated at their desks. But students in elementary schools are still not required to wear masks.

There have been many COVID-19 exposures in B.C. schools and the time of writing this column, there are five active exposure notices in Richmond schools, 17 in Vancouver schools and 53 in Surrey schools. Children do not usually get seriously ill with COVID-19, but teachers and other school staff are vulnerable.

COVID-19 is most dangerous for older people, so it makes sense to prioritize older folks for vaccination. However, teachers and other essential workers have no choice but to work outside their homes with little to no control over who they come into contact with. If I was in that situation, I would want some priority for a vaccine. It probably doesn’t make sense to prioritized young, healthy teachers who are unlikely to get seriously ill, but it seems both smart and fair to prioritize teachers who are older than 50 or who have compromised immune systems.

New guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommend immunizing teachers and other school staff as soon as supply allows, and directly after residents and staff of long-term care homes. Those guidelines also call for the universal use of masks and physical distancing and they caution that masks and physical distancing will still be required even after teachers and staff are vaccinated – “for the foreseeable future.”

This week, Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, gave teachers a bit of hope. When asked if essential workers might be prioritized for the vaccine, she said there are several new vaccines coming that are not yet approved in Canada, but if they are approved, they will greatly improve supply. They are also easier to use than the two approved vaccines because they can be stored in regular refrigerators. When they are approved, Henry said the priority list may expand.

“We can target people who aren’t able to work from home. People who are essential workers, whether it’s police, or fire services or education workers or people who work in our grocery stores and other places. We are very conscious of that,” she said.

Those new vaccines cannot get approved soon enough, especially if it means essential workers who can’t work from home get the priority they deserve.

 

Elementary, My Dear. 

Tracy Sherlock is a Richmond mom, freelance journalist and former education reporter. Every two weeks she will cover issues ranging from what's happening in schools to the latest in the opioid crisis or how to make sure your kids know how to navigate the Internet. Look for her here every second Saturday. If you have questions, comments or issues you’d like her to cover email her at Tracy.sherlock@gmail.com

 

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