Kelowna school closure prompts debate over possible vaccine mandate for staff

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After a West Kelowna school was closed due to an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak -- a debate over vaccine mandates for staff has been reignited. But as Yasmin Gandham reports -- the Central Okanagan Teachers Union is hoping for a province wide mandate if one is put in place – Nov 12, 2021

After Mar Jok Elementary School in West Kelowna was temporarily shut down due to an outbreak of over 30 cases of COVID-19, a debate has been reignited over the possibility of implementing a vaccine mandate for staff.

The debate prominent among Central Okanagan School Board members where this week trustees voted on requiring all district staff to validate their vaccine status — something the teachers’ association feels is a test to see if a vaccine mandate would be effective.

“They are going to go out and approach every employee in the district and require them to identify have you had one shot, two shots, or no shots. My thought on this is they are trying to gather the information to decide exactly what impact a mandate would have based on the number of people that are vaxxed or fully vaxxed,” says Susan Bauhart, Central Okanagan Teachers Association President.

Read more: COVID-19: West Kelowna school officials hopeful in-class hiatus will break rise in cases

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Bauhart adds that the mandate, if implemented, should be provincial wide and not vary between districts.

“I think it should be blanket. Put out by the government or the public health officer not district by district.”

Read more: 30 cases linked to West Kelowna school outbreak that some say should have been declared sooner

A number of school districts across the province have already decided against the vaccine mandate, including Surrey and Vancouver. But the BC Teachers Federation and CUPE, the two largest unions in the school system, support vaccine mandates — especially in areas seeing a spike in cases.

“They are very supportive of vaccine mandates in those areas because of the impact of schools in those areas, thankfully we are not seeing them get as sick,” explains Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry.

Superintendent of Central Okanagan public schools Kevin Kaardal says he is hopeful that the hiatus for students at Mar Jok Elementary will help the outbreak and that students will be able to get back in classrooms soon.

“There will be monitoring, and it could get extended,” Kardaal said. “We hope not. We hope we are back on the Monday…and Interior Health tells us that’s enough to end the cycle.”

Kardaal adds that although the hiatus is necessary, it is important to encourage in-person learning for kids and with the highly transmissible Delta Variant, extra safety precautions are necessary.

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“In class instruction is a far more powerful and appropriate way to learn so we want to keep that as much as we can. So I encourage everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated so we don’t need to isolate students to stop the spread,” adds Kardaal.

The school board has not yet set a deadline for when staff would have to formally reveal their vaccine status, so a decision on a possible mandate is likely not coming anytime soon.

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