Toronto District School Board grants temporary exemptions for nearly 300 unvaccinated employees

The Toronto District School Board was one of the few school boards in the country to require its approximately 40,000 staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they had an approved waiver.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Nearly 300 unvaccinated educators and employees of the country’s largest school board have been granted temporary exemptions from the vaccine mandate, meaning they will not go on unpaid leave and instead continue teaching and supervising students.

The Toronto District School Board said Monday that the 288 staff members granted waivers include special needs assistants, early childhood educators and lunchroom supervisors, and are struggling to fill these important jobs with temporary staff.

Ryan Bird, the board’s spokesman, said in an interview that staff in these positions play a “critical role” in schools, some of whom supervise the most vulnerable children.

“We had to make sure that the health and safety of the students was taken care of,” said Mr. bird. “We are actively filling these vacancies, after which we will place them on administrative leave.”

The TDSB was one of the few school boards in the country to require its approximately 40,000 employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they had an approved waiver. The board of directors had said those who fail to follow the rules would face repercussions, including unpaid leave or termination of employment.

More recently, the board said it would spread its policy implementation over three weeks, past the Nov. 1 deadline, to process about 1,000 requests for medical or faith exemptions and allow unvaccinated personnel to receive their first dose.

About 90 percent of TDSB employees are compliant with board policies, meaning they are fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated, or have been granted a waiver. According to the records of the board, the other staff members are either applying for an exemption, on leave or non-compliant.

Earlier this month, about 100 teachers and staff, as well as 700 occasional staff members, were placed on unpaid leave for failing to disclose their vaccination status.

On Monday, another 330 employees were placed on unpaid leave. That doesn’t include teachers, Mr Bird said.

Staff had informed administrators at a board meeting last month that it had hired teachers and support staff to fill vacancies. The board had also said it would try to extend working hours for support staff and have a pool of unassigned teachers and staff who could be dispatched to support schools facing shortages.

But Mr Bird said Monday that, like other school boards, “people don’t accept the jobs.”

“It could be a day or weeks before we can find another member of staff to take that position,” he added.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board also required all educators and staff to receive the first dose by September 30, unless they had medical or religious accommodations. Board spokesman Darcy Knoll said 53 permanent or temporary employees have been placed on unpaid leave.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board has lifted the requirement that employees be fully vaccinated by Nov. 30, even though more than 90 percent of staff are fully vaccinated.

The Ontario government has not mandated COVID-19 vaccines for educators, although individual school boards are allowed to do so. Instead, the county has asked school boards for their employees to disclose their vaccination status to the employer. Unvaccinated school personnel, including those who have received only one dose, should perform three rapid antigen tests per week.

Sue Gowans, a Toronto parent who has monitored staff vaccination coverage on school boards, said she was disappointed that the TDSB had granted waivers to unvaccinated staff.

“My concern is that they are overwhelmed, and this is a scheduling problem,” she said. “Vaccine mandates do a lot of public good. And if you’re going to do that, you need to plan for the tough time to roll out that mandate. If you don’t, you’ll have trouble rolling it out.”

Ms. Gowans was concerned that the board would not find temporary staff to replace the unvaccinated.

“We need to have fully vaccinated staff in hospitals and schools. We have to make those places safe,” she said.

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