Okanagan and Shuswap school boards from Oliver, B.C., to Salmon Arm are grappling with the decision of whether to institute a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for staff.
None of the five Okanagan school boards have made a decision on the issue.
The discussions are unfolding separately in each school district because the province says it is leaving it up to each school board, as the employer, to decided whether to institute vaccine mandates for school staff.
The chair of the Okanagan Skaha School District, James Palanio, said it’s too early to say how his district will handle the issue.
However, Palanio pointed out that over 80 per cent of eligible British Columbians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, suggesting a level of public support for immunization.
“We haven’t had any formal discussions at all. We just have the anecdotal information and conversations. It sounds like we have a lot of support,” Palanio said.
“The support is out there for vaccinations. We just need to know all the ins and outs, the contractual issues, and the legal issues.”
Palanio is among the school trustees expressing surprise that the decision on vaccine mandates is being left up to individual districts.
“We have been given direction right from day one from the provincial health officer so I am a little disappointed they haven’t continued to give us direction on something that I think is very serious,” Palanio said.
He believes health authorities should have been tasked with the choice and says the Okanagan Skaha School District will be consulting Interior Health as part of its process.
“To be honest, I don’t think it is part of my job. I do not have all the data available that the provincial health officer and Interior Health authority would have to make these decisions,” Palanio said.
Last week, the Central Okanagan school board decided to write a letter to the province saying it expected “any mandate for staff vaccines would have been a provincial decision in a provincial health order and that they would cover any costs.”
Meanwhile, the Vernon school board is expected to discuss a motion at its Wednesday night meeting calling for the provincial health officer to require local school staff to show proof of vaccination in that district.
The issue is also on the agenda at the North Okanagan – Shuswap school board this week for discussion.
The provincial Education Ministry says it encourages all eligible education staff to get vaccinated, but it is treating school boards the same as other employers.
“School boards are the employers. In the absence of a provincial health order, the provincial health officer has said as in many work settings, the employer can decide on mandatory vaccine programs for staff,” the ministry said in a statement.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said the province is helping districts with the vaccine mandate choice.
“I’ve tasked a representative group of stakeholders within our sector to develop a provincial framework and set of guidelines to support boards in their decision making,” Whiteside said.
The province said those guidelines for school boards will be available “in the coming days.”