The district's Medical Officer of Health acknowledged discussions have been held on whether to designate the COVID-19 vaccination as mandatory for students.
However, Dr. Jim Chirico says he is hopeful public health and school boards can avoid taking a measure such as compelling vaccinations in students under the threat of suspension from school.
"I hope that doesn't happen," he said during the Health Unit's most recent media availability. "I hope we can get as many people vaccinated as possible."
Dr. Carol Zimbalatti, Public Health Physician with the Health Unit, added, "Of course, we do encourage youth 12 and over to get vaccinated before the start of school because it will be safer for everyone, as well as encourage teachers to do the same."
The Health Unit has remained steadfast throughout the pandemic that its preference is to have students return to in-person learning — when it is safe to do so.
And, Dr. Chirico has consistently lauded the mental, physical, and social benefits derived from attending school in person. "We've seen how it has been very difficult on students not being in school for in-person learning."
As far as mandatory vaccinations, Chirico said he'd "hate to see another barrier," preventing students from in-person learning.
"Especially for this September, students who are not vaccinated," should not be subject to restrictions, offered Zimbalatti. "The overall vaccination rate may have more of an impact on what sort of measures are necessary in the schools.
"The more students we get vaccinated, the more those students will be able to experience a normal classroom environment."
As of Tuesday, the rate of vaccination for the local 12-17 age group is in line with the provincial averages. In the district, 60 per cent have received the first dose while 31 per cent have received both.
Chirico noted the schools have worked in concert with the Health Unit to keep school communities safe and are prepared to act quickly if needed. Low community transmission is the key to eventually returning to the classroom permanently, he said, accomplished by following public health guidelines and getting vaccinated.
"I hope we don't see it become mandatory, although those decisions would come at a provincial level. We can't really predict what the Ministry of Education will do," he expressed.
Key topics to be discussed prior to any return to school include the transmission of the delta variant, vaccinations for youth under 12, and a mask mandate in schools. The Ministry of Education says over $750 million has been invested over the past year to improve air ventilation systems in every school across Ontario.
So far, no plan for September has been formally announced by Education Minister Stephen Lecce although an idea of what a return to classes might look like is coming into focus.
We are listening and acting upon the priorities of students — ensuring they can enjoy extra curriculars, sports and access to mental health supports. @krasheedmpp and I enjoyed recently meeting with young leaders to get their advice on the return to class.— Stephen Lecce (@Sflecce) July 19, 2021
Thanks for sharing! pic.twitter.com/Z5EPKKPdP8