In another pandemic twist for the K-12 system, teachers are now the ones — rather than students — being asked to stay after school to reluctantly take a test.

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In another pandemic twist for the K-12 system, teachers are now the ones — rather than students — being asked to stay after school to reluctantly take a test.

Unvaccinated school employees, with testing kits and disclosure papers in hand, trickled in and out of the senior gymnasium Monday night at Grant Park High School after failing to provide proof of immunization against COVID-19.

Around 250 permanent staff in the Winnipeg School Division (five per cent of total employees) are subject to a new public health order that requires they submit negative rapid test results three times a week.

The testing site entrance for unvaccinated school employees at the senior gymnasium at Grant Park High School. (Maggie MacIntosh / Winnipeg Free Press)

The testing site entrance for unvaccinated school employees at the senior gymnasium at Grant Park High School. (Maggie MacIntosh / Winnipeg Free Press)

One of their thrice-weekly tests must be administered under observation of a nurse, an appointment that takes approximately 20 minutes to complete, at a designated division clinic.

"I didn’t even cry at my own dad’s funeral, but this has brought tears to my eyes," said one teacher, who likened the new public health order — which is being followed by the overwhelming majority of staff without issue — to government coercion.

WSD reduces staff test site hours

The Winnipeg School Division is reducing its supervised COVID-19 test clinics, which launched last week and were originally operational six days a week at both Grant Park and Tec Voc high schools, in response to an increase in employees showing proof of vaccination.

As of Wednesday, the clinics will be reduced to three times per week from five evenings per week plus Saturdays at the two high school gymnasiums, the division announced in a release.

The Winnipeg School Division is reducing its supervised COVID-19 test clinics, which launched last week and were originally operational six days a week at both Grant Park and Tec Voc high schools, in response to an increase in employees showing proof of vaccination.

As of Wednesday, the clinics will be reduced to three times per week from five evenings per week plus Saturdays at the two high school gymnasiums, the division announced in a release.

“With the completion of the first week of mandatory testing, fewer than 250 permanent and substitute staff now need to be tested,” said Eric Barnaby, chief human resources officer in WSD.

The clinic in the senior gym at Grant Park will now operate only on Wednesday evenings. The Tec Voc location will be open for appointments Mondays and Saturdays.

Barnaby said in the release the division had anticipated the number of employees requiring testing would drop once the program rolled out but could not guarantee it. "We very pleased that we can reopen the gymnasiums for school and community permits."

Student athletes and their parents at Grant Park had previously raised concerns about the division's decision to use the gymnasium as one of the sites, saying it unfairly affected practice and game schedules.

"Here’s where they’ve got me by the balls, so to speak: I love my f---ing job so f---ing much that I’m willing to go against my values on this, because I can’t leave my kids. I prayed to God, because I thought, should I go on a leave? But I couldn't leave my kids."

The Free Press spoke to a handful of employees in Manitoba’s largest school division — all of whom openly disclosed they are unvaccinated and declined to share their names — Monday outside the test site at Grant Park.

Misinformation, fringe perspectives and anti-vaccine propaganda were aplenty.

Asked about the new routine, one week after it was made mandatory provincewide, another unvaccinated teacher rolled his eyes. He expressed despair about how the order is "creating two different sects of society."

Noting the unlikeliness he will contract the novel coronavirus and die from it, the teacher said there is no need to get the vaccine.

Since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, 1,237 people — almost two per cent of all 62,907 cases in Manitoba — have died from the virus, which has sent thousands to be treated in hospital for severe symptoms. The number of people who are experiencing long-term implications from their SARS‐CoV‐2 infections is unknown.

An educational assistant said she is also unconvinced about getting the vaccine because the risk of dying from COVID-19 is not great enough. A division mechanic said he’s skeptical of the vaccine because fully immunized individuals have died of the virus, too.

Around 250 permanent staff in the Winnipeg School Division have not been vaccinated and are subject to a new public health order that requires they submit negative rapid test results three times a week. (Juan Karita / The Associated Press files)

CP

Around 250 permanent staff in the Winnipeg School Division have not been vaccinated and are subject to a new public health order that requires they submit negative rapid test results three times a week. (Juan Karita / The Associated Press files)

While highly effective, the COVID-19 vaccines do not provide 100 per cent protection against the disease, which is why public health experts continue recommending vaccinated people wear masks and practise physical distancing.

Since the vaccine rollout began in December 2020, only 22 fully vaccinated individuals in rare "breakthrough" events — or, fewer than two per cent of total deaths reported since the pandemic began — have died after becoming infected with SARS‐CoV‐2.

In comparison, a total of 94 per cent of the people who have died from the virus over the last two years had no protection from an immunization when they contracted it.

Both the division and unions that represent teachers and support staff in WSD have backed the requirement for staff to disclose vaccination status or seek frequent testing.

"We believe that policies surrounding vaccination and testing options for staff are responsible and reasonable, given guidance from public health on how to best manage COVID-19 and maintain in-person learning," James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, said in an emailed statement Tuesday.

WSD spokeswoman Radean Carter echoed those sentiments, saying the division’s main concern is ensuring children put into its care are kept safe.

One of the main concerns raised by unvaccinated employees who spoke to the Free Press was apparent government overreach.

"I’m not against vaccines, I’m against coercion or not having freedom of choice," said one teacher, estimating the new protocol takes up to 3 1/2 hours out of his week, as he has to commute into the city to take a test.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

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.