Teachers and other education workers lined up outside a former Best Buy in Surrey on Wednesday to be among the first in the region to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“It’s pretty sweet,” Jeff Doolan, who teaches a foundation plumbing apprentice course to Grade 12 students in the district, told Global News.
“It’s a little more peace of mind for me, but in terms of the boys they’re not going to get theirs, so we have to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Doolan and thousands of other Surrey school staff are among front-line essential workers who are being given priority access to the AstraZeneca/SII COVIDSHIELD vaccine.
The Surrey School District, among the hardest-hit in the province, is at the front of that priority queue, and staff from seven of the most impacted schools had a chance to get their shots Wednesday.
Earlier this month, superintendent Jordan Tinney said the district had sent out more than 2,000 exposure letters since the start of the school year, including 91 that asked entire classes to self isolate. Just eight schools had not seen a single exposure.
Tinney told Global News Wednesday there was the capacity to immunize about 400 staff a day at the single site right now, but that more sites would be added and the capacity ramped up to about 1,500 people in the days to come.
“It will start sort of in the Panorama and Sullivan area of Surrey, and move kind of up west and north along that side. We will be going by family in schools, so it will be the secondary school and the whole associated elementary schools,” Tinney said.
Shannon Akester, a math teacher at Panorama Ridge Secondary, which has seen exposures on at least 26 dates since the start of 2021, described getting her shot as a “huge relief.”
“It’s been an extremely stressful experience. It’s been difficult for all of us. I’ll be very glad when this is all over and we’re back to normal life,” she said.
She said once the vaccine kicks in she’s hoping she’ll be able to approach students more closely to offer one-on-one help with their math studies.
Akester has been tested three times for COVID already — all of which came back negative.
“But every day, of course, you’re worried you’re going to catch it,” she said.
The early vaccination comes as Surrey also beefs up COVID-19 safety protocols in its schools, with a new three-tiered response plan set to kick in once spring break comes to an end.
Not included in that plan is a mask mandate for elementary schools, something teachers and parents have been asking for since the start of the school year.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside signaled Wednesday that there was currently no plan to change that policy, but hailed the vaccines as a major step towards helping everyone feel safe in schools.
“I’m tremendously relieved that our K-12 will receive vaccinations,” she said.
“People have been waiting for this for a long time, this is very welcome, and I expect we’ll see high take up.”
Read more: New B.C. COVID-19 school exposures in 2021
Premier John Horgan also weighed in on the rollout of vaccines to teachers, calling it a “vivid example” of the province’s ability to adapt to changing COVID-19 circumstances.
“Will there be continued discussion about how e can get better? Absolutely, and I welcome that,” Horgan said.
“But for now, I am comfortable that we’re adapting as best we can to circumstances as they present themselves, an unacceptably high level of cases in Fraser Health has led (provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie) Henry and (vaccine program lead Dr. Penny) Ballem to look at our supply and make amendments to help that community.”
While thousands of Surrey school staff will be immunized in the coming days and weeks, in the short term it will remain business as usual in terms of safety protocols.
“My message is please remain vigilant — the protocols are a whole wealth of things from physical distancing all the way to personal protective equipment and all of our cleaning,” Tinney said.
“We can’t stop what we’re doing, the case positivity is up … nothing has changed for us as far as the protocols, it just means this is great news and one more step towards seeing this thing come to an end.”
The province has not announced which school district will be the next to see staff vaccinated.