Some parents leery as deadline nears to get kids fully immunized ahead of return to school

Time is running out for Manitoba students 12 to 17 to get fully immunized against COVID-19 before they return to school.

That looming deadline has some parents uneasy and questioning what more can be done to get more doses in arms to ensure schools are as safe as possible this fall.

Christopher Rigaux’s three children, one of whom contracted COVID-19 last year, attend Gordon Bell High School in Winnipeg. He fears a return to in-person learning will be “as poorly organized as it was last September.” 

“I am pretty worried that come September the province is just going to kind of throw its hands up and say, ‘Well, you know, we did what we could, we asked people to get vaccinated. They didn’t, but, you know, hey, here we go, everyone go back to school,'” Rigaux said.

Some parents want vaccines mandated in the public school system. Others are torn.

Rigaux and two others agree the province needs to ensure resources are available now for schools to upgrade ventilation systems and otherwise prepare, or face preventable transmission risks amid an anticipated rise in cases linked to the highly contagious delta variant.

On Wednesday, vaccine rollout medical lead Dr. Joss Reimer reminded parents they have until this Tuesday to arrange a first shot for their children age 12 to 17, or risk sending them back in September before they’re fully immunized.

“It’s good that they’re restating the importance,” Rigaux said.

“But it does kind of make me think that the province is once again going to be plopping all the responsibility for a smooth back-to-school on parents.” 

Parent wants mandatory vaccination

While Rigaux’s children are fully immunized, he worries a school vaccine mandate could create barriers to education for some kids.

Luanne Karn, whose daughter enters Grade 4 this fall, has a different opinion

Luanne Karn, left, and her daughter, who is going into Grade 4. Karn wants ventilation upgrades for schools and a vaccine mandate for eligible students in the public education system. (Submitted by Luanne Karn)

“We need mandatory vaccination for our schools,” said Karn, an advocate with the group Parents for Public Education.

“If you need to be fully vaccinated to go to a football game, you need to be fully vaccinated to attend school.”

Karn is also a teacher who has primarily taught medically fragile children who are at greater risk of severe outcomes remotely during the pandemic.

In-school vaccination programs are needed this fall, Karn says, and she thinks ventilation system upgrades also need to be a priority.

‘Not one magic bullet’

Dr. Jesse Papenburg, a pediatric infectious disease expert, says research has shown good ventilation can reduce the spread of the virus in schools. 

However, he said a recent U.S. study published in the journal Science, which he was not affiliated with, also suggests it’s the totality of individual measures that makes the difference.

They include:

  • Masking.
  • Cohorting.
  • Reducing class sizes.
  • Screening for symptoms.
  • Reducing extra curriculars.
  • Modifying cafeteria space to ensure distancing.
  • Restricting entry into schools.
  • Not sharing supplies.
  • Improving ventilation.
  • Installing desk shields

The study suggests that so long as schools on average have seven of those measures in place consistently, students are at no greater risk of contracting the virus in the education system and spreading it to family than other groups in the general population.

“There’s not one magic bullet,” said Papenburg, who is also a medical microbiologist at the Montreal Children’s Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre. “We shouldn’t focus on one of these measures and make it kind of a lightning rod.”

In-person learning ‘a right’

Though they generally don’t get hit as hard by COVID-19, Papenburg and Dr. Jeffrey Pernica think eligible youth aged 12 to 17 should get vaccinated.

The significant effects from previous lockdowns and loss of in-person learning underscore the need to avoid more widespread school closures, Pernica says. 

“Children have a right to go to school … for their healthy development,” said Pernica, head of infectious diseases research in the department of pediatrics at McMaster University.

“It is important from an equity lens because the people who have the least in our society are probably ones who benefit most from ready access to publicly funded education.”

Mandating vaccinations in school-age children, should they all become eligible, is an ethically fraught proposition, he says.

“I think there are lots of teenagers and children and families who would want to get that vaccine anyway to do their part for the community.”

Krystal Payne’s nine-year-old daughter will enter Grade 4 this fall unvaccinated because she isn’t eligible. 

At the suggestion of their family doctor, she spent the entire last year learning from home due to the risk of acquiring the virus at school and possibly spreading it to Payne’s father, who lives with them and is at-risk.

Krystal Payne and her family. Payne, back left, says in addition to ventilation upgrades, she’s open to some kind of vaccine mandate in public schools that that also accommodates those who can’t be vaccinated. (Heather Ruth Photography)

Payne plans to send her daughter back to school this fall, so she would like to see ventilation upgrades before then. 

Eight schools received $12.3 million for ventilation upgrades, and another $790,000 has been spent on ventilation maintenance and operation costs at schools last school year, a provincial spokesperson says. Another six schools have planned upgrades for 2021-22 estimated to cost about $9.5 million.

Back-to-school plans will be released next month, the spokesperson added.

Payne is encouraged by provincial vaccination rates. She also knows with her daughter not immunized, some of the same risks are there.

“I am open to the idea of vaccines being required in some settings, given that we have social obligations to each other, while recognizing the obvious need for the allowance of some exemptions,” she said.

“I would feel much better knowing that anyone my daughter is coming into contact with for schooling who is able to be vaccinated has been.”

WATCH | Kids should get 1st dose by July 27 to be fully vaccinated for return to school:

Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of Manitoba’s vaccine task force, said children aged 12-17 should have their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by July 27 in order to allow enough time between first and second doses, as well as enough time after the second dose, before school starts up again in the fall. 0:45

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