With three weeks left before students in Ontario are due to return from Canada’s longest run of COVID-19 school closures, the Ford government has decided that education workers should be vaccinated.

But while staff at health-care sites deemed high-risk (hospitals, ambulances, home and community care sites) must prove their vaccine status starting in early September, workers in schools will be covered only by “a vaccination disclosure policy,” it said Tuesday.

That means teachers, education assistants, and administrative staff, including at elementary schools where most students will be too young to vaccinate, must tell their school board their status and get regular rapid antigen tests if not vaccinated.

The rules affect all publicly funded school board employees, staff in private schools and licensed child care settings. Similar policies will apply to post-secondary institutions, as well as retirement homes, women’s shelters, congregate group homes, and children’s treatment centres and residential settings.

The province’s main elementary teachers’ union said the move doesn’t go far enough, voting at its annual meeting for the return to school to include mandatory vaccination, with provisions for exceptions.

“Given the severity and longevity of the global pandemic, it is not unreasonable for the Ford government to implement a mandatory vaccination policy in schools,” says Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) outgoing president Sam Hammond, who was replaced at the meeting by Karen Brown.

Hammond said a survey of ETFO members in June showed more than 90 per cent indicated having at least one dose of the vaccine, and three-quarters saying they were scheduled for a second dose by September. He said those numbers likely increased significantly over the summer.

The government said it was also pausing the province’s exit from a roadmap to reopening, would provide third doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to vulnerable populations and would make the Pfizer vaccine available to children born in 2009 or earlier.

Stephen Del Duca, the Ontario Liberal leader who has pushed hard for mandatory vaccines in both the health-care and education sectors for weeks, said Ford’s move was designed to appease the premier’s anti-vaccination supporters.

“A fourth wave has begun and schools are about to return, and Doug Ford is pandering to anti-vaxxers and failing to deliver mandatory vaccines for education workers,” he said.

The province’s main elementary teachers’ union said the move doesn’t go far enough, voting at its annual meeting for the return to school to include mandatory vaccination, with provisions for exceptions. #COVID #ONpoli

Andrea Horwath, the leader of the official Opposition NDP who had come out against mandatory vaccines for school staff initially before backing such a measure, said existing collective agreements and health and safety legislation should guide discussions with workers and their unions, but that fabrication of vaccination status should be dealt with seriously, including possible termination.

“I just want to be very, very clear: No unvaccinated person should be providing health care to our most vulnerable, no unvaccinated person should be in a classroom with our kids,” she said.

Catholic school board trustees, meanwhile, said they appreciate the move and would like some funds to see it through.

“In recognition of the additional administrative requirements flowing from the measures announced today, we will advocate to the Ministry of Education for resources to support Catholic school boards in implementing these measures,” said Patrick Daly, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association (OCSTA).

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer