KENORA – Vaccinations for most education workers in the Northwestern Health Unit aren’t expected to begin until June, weeks behind a provincial timeline teachers unions and school boards had already criticized as too slow.
It’s a frustrating situation for unions representing education workers in the region, who say the provincial government’s talk of prioritizing education workers earlier this month hasn’t been backed up with much action.
On April 6, Premier Doug Ford announced education workers would be included in the Phase 2 vaccine priority group, as essential frontline workers who cannot work from home. At the time, the province said vaccinations for that group would begin in mid-May.
It’s “disingenuous” for the province to say education workers are being made a priority when most likely won’t be eligible until the school year is all but over, said Kent Kowalski, Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) district president for Rainy River.
“The announcement sounds great, but no one follows up to make sure it actually gets done,” he said. “It was a political statement to address a public health situation.”
Kimberley Douglas, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) Keewatin-Patricia local, said some of her members who work directly with students with special needs had begun receiving first doses of vaccine.
The province has directed health units to prioritize those staff members, who are considered to be at higher risk.
That group can now book an appointment at NWHU vaccination clinics, said medical officer of health Dr. Kit Young Hoon.
“Otherwise, the general staff in the education system will become eligible when the system opens up to those who cannot work remotely,” she said. “[That’s] estimated to start at the beginning of June, and is highly dependent on vaccine supply.”
Douglas hopes that timeline will accelerate, but added she believes the NWHU is doing the best it can with limited vaccine quantities.
However, she’s not surprised the northwest of the province might lag behind provincial timelines.
“We feel very left behind in this region with the lack of vaccines and clinics,” she said.
The neighbouring Thunder Bay District Health Unit said it's awaiting guidance from the province on education worker vaccinations, excluding those who work directly with students with special needs.
The TBDHU does not yet have a timeline for when those workers might be eligible, or when vaccination of essential workers in general will begin, saying supply remained too uncertain to predict.
The Rainy District School Board initially submitted a vaccine priority list including all education workers who interact with students, said Kowalski. At least one Ontario health unit, Niagara Region Public Health, moved to vaccinate all frontline education workers after the provincial announcement.
However, the RDSB's priority list was rejected, Kowalski said, and the board later submitted a list of only those staff who work directly with students with special needs.
Earlier in the month, Ford defended the prioritization of age-based vaccination over essential workers in schools, saying over 97 per cent of COVID-related deaths in hospitals had involved people over 60.
“That’s where we see the mortalities happening," he said at an April 6 press conference.