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No vaccine mandates in Victoria and Cowichan school districts, Sooke still considering

The Greater Victoria and ­Cowichan Valley school boards will not require staff to be ­vaccinated against COVID-19, while the Sooke board hasn’t yet decided.

The Cowichan Valley board says it made the decision after consulting with public health officials, unions and other groups, noting informal data indicate the rate of vaccination among school district staff is already well over 90 per cent.

That means a vaccine ­mandate would have limited effect in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the community or in schools, the board said.

Cowichan Valley School Board chairwoman Candace Spilsbury said voting against a vaccine mandate was a “tremendously hard” choice to make.

“We all want the safest ­environment possible for our students and staff, and this­ ­decision balances what we heard from our medical health officer and all of our partner groups with that primary goal of safety in mind.”

The board could reassess its position if the COVID-19 situation changes, or with advice from health officials.

Greater Victoria also says it will not be pursuing a vaccine mandate for now, but will re-examine the issue if things change.

“We’ve made the decision to stay the course after ­consulting with our union stakeholders, just ensuring that we had all the right information going forward,” said Greater Victoria School Board chairman Ryan Painter.

Vaccine coverage in the district is already very good, he said. “The whole Island is extraordinarily high.”

Sooke’s ongoing discussions follow a round of consultations and the release of guidelines for instituting a vaccine mandate from the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association.

Premier John Horgan has said school boards should decide on vaccine mandates for schools, not the province.

Sooke School Board ­chairman Ravi Parmar said he and his trustees had been waiting to hear from the association.

The board and district ­officials are assessing details, including legal direction and procedures ­involving unions, he said.

“We want to make the best decision with all of the ­information in front of us.”

Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association president Winona Waldron, who represents about 2,000 employees, said both her group and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation are fine with vaccine mandates.

“Certainly we were not opposed,” Waldron said.

The Cowichan Valley Teachers’ Union is also not opposed, said president Naomi Nillson.

Waldron said teachers in her association already have a high level of vaccination. “Our understanding is the vast majority of our teachers, like 97 per cent, are vaccinated.”

She noted that many younger students are only now able to be vaccinated against COVID-19, which recently became available to five to 11-year-olds.

Waldron said some teachers will be disappointed that the board opted against a vaccine mandate for staff. “It would have been another level of safety.”

Angela Carmichael, president of the Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, said she has heard differing points of view on having a staff vaccine mandate, including a fear among some parents that it could lead to mandatory vaccines for students, whether parents want that or not.

“On the other hand, though, I think we all know that if we do not get vaccinated, we are never going to come out of the other side of this. So we would have taken a mandate for vaccines for staff. That would have been fine for us.”

jbell@timescolonist.com