Time to mandate COVID shots for eligible students
If there’s a single priority for managing COVID-19 this fall, most people agree, it’s this: we have to make sure kids get a proper in-class education. After a year and a half of disruption in the schools and way too much teaching-by-screen, that’s the least they need and deserve. But a month into the new school year not all kids in Ontario are getting that chance. Elementary and secondary schools are, disappointingly, the main source of outbreaks in the province. Some schools have been forced to close, and as Torstar’s Isabel Teotonio and Kenyon Wallace report, some parents are worried and confused. The question becomes: is the province doing everything it can to prevent outbreaks in schools? And is it doing all it can to give parents the information they need to make the best decisions for their kids? The answers seem to be no, and probably not. It’s important, before continuing, not to blow the situation in Ontario schools out of proportion. The province is doing rather well, comparatively speaking, in containing COVID’s fourth wave. It reported just 306 new cases on Wednesday, with the seven-day average at 525 and gradually declining. That’s much better than some official projections warned a few weeks ago. Those low overall numbers make the school figures stand out by comparison. Ontario reported 269 new COVID cases in schools on Wednesday, with 704 of its 4,844 schools (or 14.5 per cent) affected. Just five schools, a fraction of one per cent, were closed. That’s of little comfort, though, to parents whose kids are once again plunged back into online-only learning, deprived of the educational and social benefits of being with their teachers and fellow students. Ontario should be doing everything it can to minimize outbreaks in schools, such as increasing ventilation and using rapid tests to identify COVID cases before they can spread. And there’s one important step it could be taking, but isn’t: requiring kids who are eligible for a COVID vaccine to get their shots as a condition of attending school. All it would take is adding COVID to the list of nine infectious diseases (including measles, mumps, chickenpox and rubella) that Ontario kids must already be inoculated against by law under the fourdecade-old Immunization of School Pupils Act. Various school boards, Toronto Public Health, and the province’s association of public school boards all support taking that step, as do many health experts. Yet the Ford government refuses to act on the grounds that existing measures are enough to keep COVID under control in the schools. That flies in the face of common sense and established public health practice. It’s obviously dictated by political considerations, not science. And as long as the government fails to mandate COVID vaccines for eligible students (those 12 and over) it can’t claim that it’s doing everything possible to keep the disease out of schools. In the meantime, the province and school boards should do all they can to give parents as much useful information as they can in the event of outbreaks. Simply knowing there are cases in a school doesn’t help parents much in deciding what to do. More detailed information, such as what grade or class, or even what floor of a school is affected, could help them decide whether their child should stay home and avoid a potential infection. Ontario students have already lost the better part of a year of in-class schooling to COVID. They shouldn’t lose any more, and the government must not fail them and their parents.