The Ontario government and the Greater Toronto Area’s largest public health units say they don’t yet know how many teachers and education workers have been vaccinated against COVID-19 — as some special education workers and students head back to class this week.
Many of those workers were made eligible for vaccinations last week when the province announced a plan to inoculate education staff in hot-spot neighbourhoods during April break.
While the return of in-person classes for elementary and secondary schools has since been put on hold indefinitely across Ontario, some classes for students with special education needs are set to resume on Monday.
It appears that few of those teachers will have been vaccinated by the time their classrooms reopen.
“Not many have been vaccinated already, and certainly none have been vaccinated with the two-week incubation period that’s needed,” said Gail Bannister-Clarke, president of the Peel Elementary Teachers Local and a longtime Brampton elementary teacher.
The possibility of delayed vaccinations for teachers, coupled with the pandemic’s surging third wave in Ontario, is said to be threatening the return of in-person learning for the remainder of the school year.
“There will be virtually no time left in the school year before those vaccines have had a chance to take effect,” said Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF).
In Peel Region alone, Bannister-Clarke said, Monday will mark the return of 116 teachers and dozens of special education workers for in-person classes.
She said some teachers and education workers who tried to book appointments last week will not actually receive their shots until mid-May.
“We’re quite confused as to why we’re opening classrooms at this time,” Bannister-Clarke said.
Ontario promised vaccine access, ‘full stop’
Ontario said its plan to make teachers and special education workers a priority for immunization in hot-spot postal codes would help protect workers facing the greatest risk of infection.
“I just want to assure every worker in the province in our schools, driving our buses and helping to protect our kids: you are going to get access to the vaccine, full stop,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said after announcing the plan, which came days before Ontario decided to close schools to in-person learning following April break.
But local public health units, who are tasked with administering vaccinations, say they did not receive any additional vaccine supply or guidance when teachers and education staff were made eligible.
Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa estimated during a Board of Health meeting last week that “roughly 40,000” people qualified for vaccination under the expanded plan, but said Toronto did not receive any additional vaccines to serve those workers.
“It wasn’t really a plan, it was sort of a half-baked wish,” said Bischof, who said teachers have reported difficulty getting vaccine appointments across Ontario.
The province’s Ministry of Health did not respond to a CBC News request for information on the status of vaccinations among teachers and education workers.
Vaccines may not even be enough
Brenda Coleman, a clinical scientist at Sinai Health System and an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, said vaccination rates are one of several key factors that will determine if and when schools are safe to reopen.
Coleman is studying the threat of COVID-19 to teachers in schools, which she considers to be a “very high-risk situation.”
While Coleman said vaccines represent an important safeguard for teachers, she said the current trajectory of the pandemic could preclude schools from reopening even if teachers are vaccinated.
“The case rate is so high right now that putting children and education workers back into school just doesn’t make any sense at this point,” Coleman said.