School staff included in list of people slated to be vaccinated at the end of Phase 2 of Ontario’s vaccine rollout.

Ontario’s teachers will likely have to wait until June to receive their shot at protection against COVID-19.
As part of its Phase 2 rollout released Friday, the Ford government has decreed that, by and large, it’s sticking with its strategy to vaccinate those in older age groups first and hot spots second, while, relegating teachers, as well as other first responders to the back of this most current lineup.
“School staff,” the plan says, at both elementary and secondary levels, which presumably includes teachers, join firefighters, police, special constables, foster care workers, manufacturers, farm workers and funeral workers, in a new group called “Cannot work from home.” These roughly 2.5 million people are slated to be vaccinated according to the plan, just before Phase 3.
That, the plan says, “will keep workers safe and protect essential services.”
Retired Gen. Rick Hillier, head of Ontario’s vaccine task force, said at a news conference Friday that the province is aiming to complete a first round of COVID-19 vaccinations by June 20 for “every eligible person who wants it.” The new date speeds up previous targets.
Since early January, experts around the world, as well as U.S. President Joe Biden, and Ontario’s teachers unions, have decreed that teachers, as well as education workers, who likewise come into contact with students every day, should get priority for the vaccine.
“Teachers are at high risk,” Brenda Coleman, clinical scientist at Mount Sinai Hospital and assistant professor at Dalla Lana school of Public Health, told the Star. “Teachers are essential workers that should be looked at … they are highly exposed on a daily basis.”
As well, she says, there is a lot of public pressure for kids to be in school in person and on teachers to deliver instruction face to face. For some time, Coleman says, people didn’t believe kids were carrying COVID or were capable of transmitting it. But, she says, that’s not the case. Not only can they get it, but they can give it, even if they have mild or no symptoms.
To date, teachers have been understudied in the public health literature, she says, and that is why she answered a government call last fall to investigate the risk of COVID in education workers. Coleman is just beginning a yearlong study, the first of its kind in Canada, of more than 7,000 education workers, including teachers, support staff and school caretakers — anyone who comes into contact with students during the school day — to better understand their rates of infection, not only in COVID, but also in influenza and in about 100 different viruses that lead to the common cold, as well as to determine their risk factors for getting sick. The study will also look at their mental distress.
But, while Coleman hopes her study will be able to make important recommendations on the health implications of class size, personal protective equipment (PPE) and the need to vaccinate urgently, her results won’t be ready for some time. Yet, she says, policy-makers must decide now about whether and when to make teachers as well as other groups in society a priority.
“They can’t wait for a study like mine,” Coleman says. “There are smaller studies out there saying that this disease transmits in schools. Everyone is saying the same thing — that teachers definitely need to be high on the vaccine priority list.”
Amid Ontario’s slow and fraught vaccine rollout, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, which represents teachers across the province, has, since January, been calling on the government to implement additional protections for students and staff, including better ventilation, reduced class sizes, access to asymptomatic testing, better PPE and priority to receive the vaccine in line with other front-line workers.
“Despite the increased risk of transmission highlighted by the government’s own data, the government has yet to implement additional protections for students, educators and other staff currently working in schools,” Sam Hammond, ETFO president wrote in an open letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce on Jan. 19. “Educators will continue to do all they can to support students and their families. We need you to do your part.”
The Toronto District School board has recently announced that it will be putting air filtration machines in schools that need it as vaccine rollout across the province has been slow and problematic.
Even though it seems like a no-brainer to vaccinate the people who are dutifully leaving their homes each day to care for and teach the province’s young, it is unclear what is motivating policy-makers to be moving in that direction. Or, if they are relying on data collected by Ontario’s Ministry of Education. Publicly available statistics on positive COVID cases in schools are nothing if not confusing.
A quick parsing of the data reveals that about 1.4 per cent of the just more than 9,000 positive cases in schools to date have infected Ontario’s roughly 128,000 education workers and 7,000 administrators. That may seem low given that about 2.1 per cent of the general population has tested positive for COVID to date, and, according to data released in late February by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, about 1.8 per cent of front-line health-care workers, including doctors and nurses, have tested positive.
But the school data is incomplete and misleading. About 13 per cent of positive COVID cases reported by school boards to the Ministry of Education have been classified as “unspecified,” meaning it is unclear whether the infected person is a student or a staff member. Further, the publicly available data does not discern any categories within “staff,” which includes just about every adult that works in a school, including teachers, office and maintenance workers as well as education workers who spend their days in the presence of high-risk and special-needs children.
John Weatherup, president of CUPE Local 4400, which represents about 17,000 education workers in Toronto, calls the current data useless and misleading and says it can’t be used right now in any “meaningful way.” Data, he says, only becomes useful after the fact, months or years down the road, when it can be properly contextualized. When a case of COVID is discovered in a school there is no telling how it will impact all other members of the school and the community at large. “You could have a couple of cases that could then impact hundreds of families with sick leaves and parents’ abilities to take care of their children.”
Weatherup says that numbers are only a small part of the decision-making process, which should focus on the relationship between COVID and the people who have it and how that impacts schools, children, parents, economics and other aspects of society.
Right now, he says, consensus among experts around the world is that education workers are a priority for vaccinations, especially those who spend their days in the physical presence of special-needs and high-risk kids.
“Every medical expert in the world says so,” Weatherup says. “If you say to someone you are working close to a child who will rip your mask off, we don’t need data to know that they are at higher risk.”
Peter Juni, scientific director of the COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, which advises the government on who to prioritize for vaccines, says that currently, the Table is looking at various groups in society to figure out “who’s next.” Since Canada isn’t one of the “rich kids,” as he calls it, with ready access to enough vaccines to quickly get a needle into everyone’s arm, the province has to be “street smart” about its strategy.
In late February, the Table released a report advising the Ford government to prioritize high-risk neighbourhoods over certain groups of people, because that appears to be the best way to contain the spread of the virus — and get the pandemic under control.
Juni says using neighbourhood, income information and professional classification is more helpful to understand the path steering the pandemic. People with dense social contacts, such as warehouse workers and waiters in a restaurant, are not only at greater risk of contracting the virus, but at greater risk of spreading it too.
“We need to continue to get those people vaccinated who have the most social network density,” Juni says. “If we get those, we can interrupt the transmission chain.”
But it’s a tricky thing, he says. Of course, teachers are a priority, he says, but there are also other groups that are equally as important and who may not have as loud a voice.
“That’s why we need to do our homework as scientists,” he says. “So we can do the best with the available doses.”
Coleman’s study will help for the next viral outbreak. Right now, she is in the process of trying to attract participants through tweets and emails, and reaching out to teachers unions across the province. Going through official channels — to every school board and principal in the province to get their sign off in order for teachers to participate, she says, is logistically impossible.
This story has been updated to include retired Gen. Rick Hillier’s June 20 timeline for eligible adults to receive their first vaccine.