Ontario’s Conservatives must mandate vaccines for in-person high school attendance – Toronto Star

A return to the things that students value — like sports, music, clubs, student councils, intramurals, drama productions and school dances — will surely require some proof of vaccination, writes Glenn Waugh.

By Glenn WaughContributor

Sun., July 25, 20213 min. read

Lately, Ontario’s Conservative government has touted their planned return to in-person learning this September. While these broad statements may seem a balm to stressed parents, they ignore the fact that for most of the province’s high school students, two-thirds of this past year was conducted in-person — albeit cohorted and operating under the so-called “hybrid” model.

In most cases, this meant that students attended school in-person part of the time, and studied from home when the alternate cohort was in school. For teachers, however, full-time in-person teaching was the reality for much of the year. The curriculum survived and students learned “live,” but many were unable to educationally thrive.

Then, the final months of province-wide closures meant that most high schoolers completed entire courses online. Not only did they never meet their classmates or teachers, but many disengaged completely from any sort of educational regularity: logging in intermittently, doing assignments in the wee hours, just getting by. Surviving, not thriving. Surely, a return to in-person learning is the sort of achievable goal that we need right now!

Merely trumpeting a return to in-person learning isn’t enough, though. While it will undeniably help overburdened parents, tired of working from home while overseeing their children’s educational responsibilities, the bare-bones educational environment of this past year is untenable in the long term — even if students are permitted to return, uncohorted, to daily in-person classes.

In-person classes alone, devoid of the extracurricular, artistic, athletic and social outlets that a rich and vibrant educational system provides, cannot meet the needs of students returning from a mentally and emotionally draining 18 months of pandemic disruptions.

The Conservatives must do more to ensure a safe return to the full tapestry of experiences offered in high schools, and this can only be done with vaccinations as a prerequisite to secondary students’ return to the in-person classroom. Other vaccinations are already required for school attendance, and to ignore this fact by pandering to the privacy hawks and libertarian base that makes up a large portion of the Conservative voting coalition is harmful and inappropriate. This is especially true as the education system itself is meant to promote critical thinking and scientific reasoning — concepts antithetical to the conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccine groups so opposed to mandatory vaccination requirements.

A return to the things that students value — like sports, music, clubs, student councils, intramurals, drama productions and school dances — will surely require some proof of vaccination due to the perceived, though perhaps overstated, elevated risk-level that comes with those activities. However, to download that monitoring to already overstressed teachers, to have teachers checking statuses and turning away the unvaccinated, is patently unfair.

We now have, despite the protests of teachers’ unions in pre-pandemic times, an online school system in every board. These fully remote school systems were used this past year to accommodate students who were uncomfortable with attending in-person classes for any variety of reasons. However, this system could also be easily utilized to educate the unvaccinated. If, as advertised, these full-remote schools are offering a complete curriculum, then the answer is simple: if you wish to attend high school in-person, get a vaccine. If you are unwilling to do so, we won’t deny your right to an Ontario education, but that education will be received from one of the online schools that now exist in every jurisdiction.

At the very least, the provincial government needs to clarify exactly what the vaccination requirements will be for a full and complete restart of the Ontario school system, not merely a return to in-person learning. School boards should be informing parents and students now as to just how their vaccination status will affect their participation in all curricular and extracurricular aspects of school life, so that they are making informed decisions over the summer months.

Faced with these types of choices, we may just see increased uptake in vaccinations among the 12–18-year-old demographic that has become increasingly concerning to both health officials and politicians. To jeopardize a return to the deep and comprehensive educational experience students need — in the defence of some false notion of freedom, privacy, or, more cynically, to protect votes in an election year — is not only disingenuous but disgraceful.

Glenn Waugh is a teacher near London, Ont.