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St. Paul Education moving ahead with vaccination administrative procedure

Discussions around an administrative procedure took up much of Wednesday's St. Paul Education school board meeting. The AP deals with vaccines for staff members. Also part of the discussion was insurance implications, spectators at sporting events, the ATA's stance, and more.
Vote St. Paul Ed
A screenshot of the St. Paul Education board's Wednesday meeting shows a 4-2 vote to proceed with creating a board policy in line with an AP being developed regarding COVID-19 vaccines.

ST. PAUL - Staff members from St. Paul Education will have until March 1, 2022, to either become fully vaccinated for COVID-19, choose to do regular testing twice a week, or take leave without pay, as the division moves forward with creating an administrative procedure (AP) as per the provincial government's request.

On Dec. 8, the St. Paul Education board of trustees made a motion to proceed with the creation of an AP regarding COVID-19 vaccines for staff members, and other adults who work closely in schools, which will include adult volunteers such as coaches. If individuals choose not to get vaccinated, they will have the choice to pay for rapid testing, which will have to be done twice a week during the school year, or as a last resort they may choose to take a leave from their position.

The topic took up most of Wednesday afternoon's regular St. Paul Education board meeting. Early in the meeting, superintendent Glen Brodziak spoke about the COVID-19 Hazard Assessment that he had recently completed. Since the topic falls under occupational health and safety, with COVID-19 being deemed a workplace hazard, the superintendent is responsible to mitigate those hazards through the creation of an AP.

Brodziak called the AP "a moderate approach."

Early in his presentation, he reminded those listening that school divisions do not have authority to dictate vaccination status of students, and that all children have the right to an education. The AP is only relevant to staff members and adults who are in school division facilities longer than 15 minutes.

On Oct. 5, the Government of Alberta sent out a letter recommending school divisions develop policies that require proof of vaccine or negative tests for staff and other adults. So far, over 30 school boards across the province have put policies in place, reported Brodziak.

He acknowledged that there have been many questions posed about whose responsibility it is to decide if a policy is created, to which he noted that due to the issue being specific to the health and safety of staff, the authority falls with the superintendent. 

In some jurisdictions, superintendents have made the decision without school boards being part of the process, and in other areas school boards have directed superintendents to create the policy. 

Speaking to the fact that COVID-19 has been deemed a workplace hazard, it is the school division's job to eliminate or control the risk. A variety of controls can be put in place, such as physical controls and the use of personal protective equipment. If one method does not control the risk, then a combination of methods are to be used. 

Brodziak affirmed that there are "many valid viewpoints on this debate," but he believes there is a general consensus to keep schools open. He noted that positive COVID cases in the St. Paul area have been on the decline, "which is great news."

In October and November there were about seven to 12 cases being reported per week in area schools, said Brodziak. When speaking on Dec. 8, he noted that there had not been any cases reported yet for December.

Speaking about the one-question survey that was conducted as part of the hazard assessment, Brodziak said staff were asked anonymously about their vaccine status, and were given the chance to provide feedback on the topic. According to those results, which included 399 responses from schools across the area, 84 per cent reported that they were double vaccinated.

He noted with any survey there is a margin of error, but it is deemed to be statistically valid. St. Paul Education employs about 620 staff. 

The superintendent also spoke about the number of vulnerable students in schools who are deemed to be medically fragile. There are 623 students within the division who have medical alert reports. While some students are deemed to be at mild or moderate risk, others are severe. The number also includes students with asthma. 

Brodziak also collected information regarding insurance premiums. He explained that St. Paul Education is part of of consortium made up of other school divisions that pool together to purchase insurance.

Last month, he reported that insurance premiums would likely increase if the division did not create a policy, and while information is still somewhat unclear on the topic, more information has been gathered. The likely scenarios are that premiums would either increase, or the school division would be denied coverage if there is no procedure in place. 

While a decrease in insurance costs could be seen next year, not creating a policy could nullify those cost savings, heard the board.

St. Paul Education belongs to ARMIC (Alberta Risk Managed Insurance Consortium) insurance group, along with 37 other school boards. The division's total insurance premium invoice for the current year is $1,028,046.

"While significant, it is $108,112 less than last year," said Secretary-Treasurer Jean Champagne, speaking with Lakeland Today after the meeting. "This includes property, liability, auto, cyber, crime, errors... Some lines like property and liability went down, but others like cyber went up considerably," he explained.

The division does not know what the costs for next year will be. 

"We saw a significant increase in premiums three years ago due to a number of claims related to flooding down south, wildfires in the north as well as regular fires and water damage. This was timed with a general hardening of the market and our premiums went up substantially," said Champagne. "Thankfully, the consortium has had a few good years, claim-wise, and we are hopeful that rates will continue to go down."

ATA stance

During the meeting, Brodziak also relayed information that had been released by the Alberta Teachers' Association, noting the ATA has said it will not cover the costs of testing for teachers who decide not to get vaccinated. 

Information on the ATA's website states, "No one can be forced to be vaccinated. There can be consequences though for individuals who refuse to be vaccinated or refuse to show proof of vaccination. These may include provisions requiring the individual to undergo periodic testing, potentially on their own time and at their own expense. Alternatively, the individual may be required to work in settings that limit their contact with students and/or other staff.

"In some cases, the employer may respond by requiring the unvaccinated individual taking a leave from work (potentially without pay). The Association’s position is that such a response by the employer should not be disciplinary in nature, but rather a necessary and reasonable consequence of their being unvaccinated."

Brodziak also spoke to how other groups have released statements on the issue of vaccines. For example, this summer Pope Francis urged Catholics to get vaccinated, referring to it as "an act of love."

“Thanks to God’s grace and to the work of many, we now have vaccines to protect us from COVID-19,” said the Pope, in a video message. St. Paul Education has three Catholic schools that fall within its authority - St. Paul Elementary, Racette Jr. High School, and Mallaig School.

While Brodziak agreed that offering staff the option to get tested "won't be a silver bullet," it does offer choice. "There's no easy answer," said the superintendent. 

A draft AP was presented to the board on Wednesday, and is expected to be complete before Christmas break. In January, the division will collect the vaccination status of all staff members - but it will be done in a private way where even the superintendent himself won't know who is and who isn't vaccinated.

For those who opt to take part in testing, there will be a cost to both the staff member and the school division. Brodziak said he has looked at securing a third party to help with testing. Tests would cost about $11 each for staff member, and $13 per test for the school division.

"It's cheaper, not free," said Brodziak, referring to the fact that many other places in the area are charging various amounts for tests, ranging from $20 to $50 per test.

Only one person within the division's office will have access to the test results. Tests would likely happen every Sunday and every Wednesday.

While the AP is considered to be a temporary measure and will be reviewed regularly, it will have to be followed while it is in place.

"It would be mandatory to provide your vaccination status... it will have to be followed," said Brodziak.

Bus drivers will not be part of the AP since they are not required to be in schools, and there are other measures in place to control risks. Adults who visit schools quickly to do things like drop off a lunch, also would not be asked about their vaccination status since they wouldn't be in the building more than 15 minutes.

This 15-minute rule would also allow parents to have short visits with teachers, for example.

Following Brodziak's presentation, board chair Heather Starosielski said she felt the board and division administrators took their time to consider the policy, and did not rush the topic. On Nov. 29, the board took part in a legal consultation to become more informed on the issue of mandatory vaccines, and every trustee was in attendance either physically or virtually. 

She noted that Brodziak had the authority to go ahead and create an AP without the board being involved, but he did not. Instead the board and superintendent worked together in what Starosielski described as a "sharing process."

The draft AP is an attempt to "find a balance," she said, adding, it is not mean to put a "wedge" between people, and the process has been "very difficult."

While the board didn't have to vote on the AP, a motion to support the development and implementation of the AP was made by trustee Darcy Younghans. The vote was 4-2, and the motion was carried. Trustees Sylvie Smyl and Jan Rajoo did not vote in favour of the motion.

Rajoo did not comment on the topic during discussions, while Smyl did ask some questions for clarification regarding the timeline that would be in place.

The AP does not require the board of trustees to be vaccinated, and Starosielski asked if the board would be interested in creating a policy that would fall in line with the AP. Trustee Dwight Wiebe spoke in favour of moving ahead with the creation of a policy for trustees.

A motion to bring the item back to next month's meeting was carried 4-2. 

"As leaders, it's important to lead from the top, and to demonstrate, and to walk the walk," said Starosielski.

Spectators at sports

During his presentation to the board, Brodziak also spoke about plans to allow parents to watch school sports in-person in the New Year. The first step will be to allow parents from the same household the opportunity to watch home league games, starting in January.

Schools do not follow the Restrictions Exemption Program (REP) set out by the province, but will be putting other protocols in place, said the superintendent. They will follow a one-third capacity rule, and spectators will not be allowed at tournaments where there are multiple teams in attendance.

Schools will monitor to make sure spectators are parents of students who are playing.

Smaller school events that can be held in the school gymnasiums with plenty of distancing will also likely resume in 2022, with parents being allowed to attend some of those functions.

Janice Huser

About the Author: Janice Huser

Janice Huser has been with the St. Paul Journal since 2006. She is a graduate of the SAIT print media journalism program, is originally from St. Paul and has a passion for photography.
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