The country’s largest school board will further delay unpaid leave for some unvaccinated staffers, citing shortages — especially in special education.
In an email to parents Monday, the Toronto District School Board, which has a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, said it had placed about 330 staff members on administrative leave for not being vaccinated, but had granted temporary exemptions to about 290.
“These exemptions will only last until we are able to adequately fill these positions on a case-by-case basis,” according to the message, which noted that most of the unvaccinated staff allowed to remain on the job, for now, are special needs assistants, early childhood educators and lunchroom supervisors.
“As we implement the procedure, it is important that there is minimal impact on students’ learning, well-being and safety. As part of this plan, we are relying on occasional/casual staff to fill in for these staff members but, like other school boards across Ontario, we are seeing lower levels of occasional/casual staff taking available jobs. In addition, we know that the absence of some staff would have a serious impact on the ability of some schools to maintain the safety and well-being of students.”
The board, which has about 41,600 TDSB staff members including teachers, administrators and support staff, noted that the roughly 290 staff with temporary exemptions make up about 0.7 per cent of the total.
“We know this is an incredibly challenging time for the staff impacted by this procedure, but we are doing all we can to ensure the health and safety of our students and staff,” the board email said, adding that “it is important to note that all staff, including those with temporary exemptions, are continuing to meet all Ministry of Education requirements including regular rapid antigen testing three times per week for those that are unvaccinated.”
Marie Tattersall, whose daughter attends King George Junior Public School, where there was a COVID outbreak in September, says “the prospect of condoning unvaccinated lunchroom supervisors as a staffing shortage solution is wholly unacceptable.”
Terri Chu, who has a three-year-old son in junior kindergarten and a six-year-old daughter in Grade 1 at Palmerston Avenue Junior Public School, calls the board’s message a “vaccine back pedal.”
Her son, who turns four in a couple of weeks, isn’t yet eligible for a vaccine, which is being rolled out to children aged five-11 starting this week. So even as more kids get the jab, including her daughter, Chu’s son will remain in a subset that can’t because of his age. But even more concerning, she says, is that some educators have refused to get vaccinated.
“What kind of people are being hired in the education system that they would be so science illiterate to refuse a vaccine that’s been made widely available for six months?” she asks. “I’m more concerned that this is a thing. And, what it means in general for the education system, for our children, and for at-risk children.”
In late October, the Toronto board announced it would delay the unpaid leave for staff who weren’t fully vaccinated from Nov. 1, staggering requirements, instead deciding that those who refused to be vaccinated by Nov. 21 would be put on an unpaid leave of absence.
Many who had not disclosed their vaccination status were believed to be casual employees who had not yet worked any shifts this fall. Earlier this month, some 800 workers were suspended for non-compliance — but almost 700 were casual workers.
Parents have expressed concerns to the board about unvaccinated staff working with children, especially those in elementary school who have not yet gotten their shots and in particular special education students who may be medically vulnerable.
While the TDSB cannot disclose whether specific individuals are vaccinated, concerned parents of children who are immune-compromised or at greater risk of COVID can contact the principal.
“We would encourage (parents) to speak with the school to learn more — not necessarily about the vaccine status, but maybe they could be reassured that there’s not an issue in that class or they could be made aware of the steps being taken to keep everyone safe,” said spokesperson Ryan Bird. “if anyone has concerns it’s really best to speak with the principal at the school.”
Trustee Shelley Laskin, in her weekly update to parents, said trustees were informed Friday that “some TDSB schools have identified that the absence of some roles would have a serious impact on their ability to maintain safety and well-being needs of students.”
She said the director of education “confirmed these exemptions will only last until we are able to adequately fill positions using larger quantities of staff that are available and willing to provide service and support to our schools and students.”
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