As a public-school teacher, Natal Day fireworks have always been a bit of a milestone for me. They are, in many ways, a starting pistol. As much as July tends to be about winding down from the hectic mayhem that was the previous school year, August tends to be about winding up. In the words of the immortal bard, summer’s lease does indeed hath too short a date, even for teachers. As the last sparkle fades from the Natal Day night sky, our minds start to turn towards September’s inevitable arrival.
Obviously, last September was one for the ages. The confusion and fear of returning to class under the plan that wasn’t really a plan for COVID-19 had many of us downright frightened. As staff, students and parents navigated what it meant to be in school during a pandemic, we all waited expectantly, watching the news cycle, hoping for a cure.
This September is again one for the ages. Our problem this time round isn’t an absence of protection against the virus, however, it is the reluctance of a hefty percentage of our population to admit there is, or ever was, a problem.
I have recently written quite a bit about the anti-vaxx sentiment that has been sweeping our nation, and want to make one thing perfectly clear. The people who have come to believe that the vaccine is an unproven product of big pharma, which is profiting by treating humans like lab rats, believe it wholeheartedly. This is not your average tin-foil-hat-wearing brand of skepticism. The individuals who I have spoken to (and who have reached out to me in rather alarming numbers) point to multiple sources to support their conclusions. Many, like ex-CBC performer Cathy Jones, have risked a great deal to make their views on the subject known.
The issue, however, isn’t why these folks believe that the rest of us are out-to-lunch, or how they have come to believe that, or even how we attempt to show them the error of their ways. The real question is how do we live alongside them, and perhaps more pointedly for an educational writer, how do we sit our kids beside their kids when the school bell rings this September?
Although Nova Scotian’s received multiple assurances from the Liberal government that schools were safe during our last series of outbreaks, a Freedom of Information request by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union revealed that there were 694 COVID cases connected to schools as potential exposure sites. The number of Nova Scotians who are fully vaccinated remains stubbornly still at about 70% of the population, which obviously translates to about 30% of the eligible population of any school showing up this fall without the shot. With those kinds of numbers and with transmission rates of the Delta variant on the rise, the question of mandatory vaccinations seems at least worthy of consideration.
In Canada, very few provinces require vaccinations for school aged children. One of our closest neighbours, New Brunswick stands as one of the outliers. There, children must be vaccinated against a whole bevy of diseases before being admitted into public school. Ontario is currently wrestling with the question of whether to include the COVID-19 shot among its required vaccines. To our south, hundreds of American colleges and universities have insisted that both students and staff present proof of full inoculation against COVID prior to being admitted on campus.
When it comes to the individuals who run our schools, there has been a fair bit of support for making the shot a condition of employment. Back in May, the CBC ran an extensive piece on the stress being placed on schools by the virus, and in a national survey they found a majority of Canadians supported the idea of mandatory vaccines for school staff. Certainly here in Nova Scotia we are no strangers to mandatory conditions of educational employment, as evidenced by the 2018 decision on criminal record checks. A similar declaration on the COVID-19 vaccination, although undoubtedly more controversial, would simply be a matter of political will.
We obviously won’t see much of that over the next few weeks. Iain Rankin’s cowardly call of an election mid-summer will make sure of that. Instead of concerning itself with the safety of hundreds of thousands of Nova Scotians, perhaps by updating school ventilation systems or working to reduce class sizes, the government has decided to distract itself with the business of remaining in power. Regardless of the election outcome, the new government will not have time to do much in the way of decision making prior to the opening bell.
So, here we are once again, sitting through a somewhat wetter than normal Nova Scotian summer, the sword of Damocles dangling precariously over our schools for September.
It could be, of course, that I am a victim of my own hyperbole. Maybe, as folks like Cathy Jones seem to believe, COVID isn’t really all that bad. However, when it comes to what September will look like for both myself as a teacher and for the kids I teach, I want to imagine a mask-free, sanitizer-free, at-home-learning-free year.
I’m not sure that happens if 30% of us, rightly or wrongly, continue to live in vaccine denial.
Originally published in the Chronicle Herald, August 4th, 2021