Garden Valley School Division trustees have gone out of their way to request their facilities in the Winkler area be excluded from COVID-19 vaccine clinics.
Last month, the board in the Southern Health Region — home to the lowest vaccination rates in all of Manitoba — informed the province it was opting out of the pandemic immunization program for students aged 12 and up.
"The board does support that COVID vaccines are important and that people should have them," said chairwoman Laurie Dyck. "We just, at this time, feel offering them in our schools is not the best option."
Dyck said trustees came to a conclusion in early September, based on conversations with parents, medical professionals and school staff.
Citing the fact the region has low uptake overall, she indicated it's particularly important that parents feel they are part of the immunization process and can attend appointments with their children. A site outside of school is better suited for that, said the trustee, adding the division has communicated details about the local clinic at C. W. Wiebe Medical Centre to families.
In a generic statement, the local teachers union said its members are committed to the well-being, safety and educational development of students: "(The Garden Valley Teachers' Association) is in support of positive student health, and we look to Manitoba Health to provide as many safe, viable options as possible to ensure that families who are looking to vaccinate their children have that opportunity," union president Mike Urichuk wrote in an email.
As far as the Manitoba School Boards Association is aware, no other board has made such a request to halt in-school clinics.
"My impression is that most boards, depending on the situation in their communities, will continue to engage in vaccination clinics in their schools because we always have — pre-COVID, we always did," said president Alan Campbell.
Notably, the Winkler division plans to continue hosting immunization programs for hepatitis B and other vaccines administered annually at school.
"The division’s to the point where they’re worried about keeping students. At the beginning of last school year, when they announced the mask mandate in schools, we probably lost about, at my school, 20 per cent of our students," said one teacher in the region.
Garden Valley recorded a drop of nearly 10 per cent in annual enrolment in 2019-20 — the largest decrease reported by any division.
The educator speculated that more parents would pull their children from local schools if the division ran vaccine clinics — even though youth under 16 need parental consent to get a shot on-site during school hours.
One parent in Winkler launched a petition to prevent COVID-19 shots in schools at the start of the school year.
"My take is that it’s actually dangerous to hold a vaccine clinic in a jurisdiction where there are so many radicalized anti-vaxxers," said Lauren Hope, a Winnipeg parent and teacher involved with Safe September MB.
Hope said opponents to vaccination appear to be digging in their heels as threats against health-care workers become louder and anti-vaccine protests get increasingly violent.
"A game of chicken" is underway and the province needs to hold its ground on vaccine mandates so the unvaccinated population feels social, moral and economic pressure to do the right thing and protect both themselves and others, added Hope.
Meantime, the Louis Riel School Division is finalizing a policy to require eligible students to be immunized to participate in extracurricular activities.
Superintendent Christian Michalik said he hopes one lesson learned from the pandemic is that society has allowed misinformation about the safety, necessity and effectiveness of vaccines to fester for far too long. "I’m hoping that we’re really going to see this as an opportunity to really course-correct," he said. "We have an essential role to play in helping develop children who (are critical thinkers)."
Michalik indicated he wants to offer as many vaccine clinics in schools as possible to boost uptake. By the end of October, the southeast Winnipeg board will have hosted 42 such clinics.
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.