Support for compulsory COVID-19 vaccines for eligible students — and once immunizations are approved and available to them, learners of all ages — to attend in-person classes in Manitoba is "striking," new research suggests.
A recent Probe Research/Free Press poll indicates seven in 10 Manitobans would welcome making two jabs a requirement for pupils to study in the same building with peers and teachers.
One-half of respondents expressed strong support for the measure. One in five, however, strongly oppose it.
"I actually was surprised at just how high support is for a vaccine mandate, in both elementary and secondary schools," said Mary Agnes Welch, a principal at Probe. "There’s quite striking support for such a move, if we ever had to get to that point."
Welch said it is remarkable how broad and strong support is when K-12 attendance is mandatory and there is widespread understanding education should be as accessible for all.
A total of 71 per cent of respondents are in support of requiring students in grades 7-12 to have received two doses for in-person schooling. Of that group, 56 per cent said they felt strongly about it.
While those surveyed were slightly more likely to favour a mandate for older pupils, two-thirds reported support for mandatory shots for children under age 12, once vaccines are made available to this age cohort.
A majority of parents polled were in favour of the measure across all age groups, though in smaller numbers than the total averages.
Welch's hunch is parents are cautious about the possibility of excluding children and want to be extra vigilant when making health-related decisions for their children.
Meantime, she noted the data show there is clear opposition in the southeastern and south-central corners of the province — in which vaccine uptake is lagging and there is extensive anti-government sentiment.
Around 60 per cent of residents from those areas are against implementing school immunization requirements.
"I would go so far as to say that if there was a vaccine mandate in schools in the south, you would see very intense public opposition... because those are parts of the province where family is incredibly important and kids are hugely important, but also parental rights," said Welch, noting the religious and conservative values in the region.
Winnipeggers were much more likely to be supportive of the measure than those who live beyond the Perimeter Highway. Respondents aged 55 and older, and residents with higher levels of education were also most supportive of mandates.
As far as bioethicist Arthur Schafer is concerned, mandates should be "a policy of last resort" — especially in schools, given the risks associated with contracting the virus are far lesser for youth than they are for older populations.
It is noteworthy children cannot exercise their own autonomy with respect to health-care decisions and weighing benefits and harms, said the founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.
Schafer is in favour of focusing on school ventilation, small classes, physical distancing, masking, and funding initiatives to boost uptake among adults.
"Keeping schools open has to be a top priority. Is it necessary or will it become necessary in order to keep schools open for younger children that we have a vaccine mandate? I hope it won’t be," he added.
"If schools were closing left, right and centre and younger children were faced with another year of lost education, then I think that would be an important consideration."
Probe surveyed a random and representative sampling of 1,000 adults between Sept. 7 and 20.
According to the research firm, the survey’s margin of error is within 3.1 percentage points of what it could have been if the entire adult population of Manitoba had been surveyed.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.