The Woolwich Observer

School suspension­s over vaccinatio­ns reveal a few glitches in the system

- Julian Gavaghan

MORE THAN A THOUSAND ELEMENTARY school students across Waterloo Region remained suspended due to out-of-date vaccine records almost a week after the classroom ban began.

Public health officials said the number forced to stay home had dropped from 2,969 on March 27 to 1,415 on Tuesday as frustrated parents struggled to report their shots.

Among the 11 elementary schools in Woolwich and Wellesley, 57 out of the 122 students initially suspended remained at home the night before The Observer went to press.

Region of Waterloo Public Health expect the figure to fall more but admit some children will stay out of the classroom for the full 20 schooldays that the law permits and only return on April 25.

Secondary students in the region may also be ordered out of schools if their records are not completed by May 1.

Almost three times as many elementary children were suspended this year compared to the last time Ontario’s Immunizati­on of School Pupils Act was enforced five years ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

David Aoki, the region’s director of infectious disease and chief nursing officer, said the main reason for the increase was the large number of new students the authority had not demanded records from before now, but also said a rise in vaccine skepticism “may play a part.”

However, some affected parents claim their children’s records were up to date and that they were unfairly suspended due to problems with online self-reporting systems.

Those affected by suspension­s were told they have to book an in-person appointmen­t at a Region of Waterloo Public Health office in order to allow a return to school.

The service, which has an office in Waterloo and another in Cambridge, has not been taking phone calls.

The chaos has led to staff at some Catholic schools in the region, whose students accounted for a third of those suspended, being reportedly shouted at by parents over the suspension­s.

The Waterloo Catholic District School Board, which

runs 44 of the region’s 151 taxpayer-funded elementary schools, sent a memo to carers calling for calm.

“We understand that this may be a stressful time for families, and we urge everyone to exercise courtesy and lead with kindness when speaking with office and school staff,” it read.

The current number of students with incomplete records has fallen dramatical­ly from the original 27,567 when warning letters threatenin­g suspension were first sent to families in November.

However, some of the recipients say they were still punished despite getting their children vaccinated after receiving those notices.

One parent, who is also a teacher with the Waterloo Region District School Board, told The Observer that her daughter was suspended from her Grade 3 class within the public system despite her complete vaccine record having been reported online three months ago.

The mother, who does not want to be named due to her job, said she logged the most recently required shot with the Immunizati­on Connect Ontario (ICON) service in January and received a confirmati­on email, but was still told her youngest of three children would be suspended anyway because of an “incomplete” record.

The teacher says she was left scrambling for childcare while desperatel­y looking online to book an appointmen­t to log the details.

Eventually, six days after her daughter was suspended, the mother’s elderly father was able to take the same vaccine record she had already logged once to the public health office in Waterloo, she said.

“I was most upset that this couldn’t be handled with a phone call earlier,” she said on Tuesday.

“Then I couldn’t book an appointmen­t last week as none were available. I kept checking and there was nothing.

“It still says there are no appointmen­ts when

I go back in. I must have caught a cancellati­on.

“Why do a mass suspension of students if they can’t handle dealing with that many students at once?

“If my parents were unavailabl­e, I don’t know what I would have done as I need my family care days for [the same daughter’s] ACL injury appointmen­ts that are in London.”

Another mother, Sarah McKay of Cambridge, told CTV News she had a similar problem with the youngest of her two sons.

The public health website notes that there is a delay between when records are logged on the ICON service and when they are received by authoritie­s in Waterloo Region.

Aoki said officials were “trying to resolve issues” parents may face.

“We encourage parents to contact us if there’s a reason they feel their child shouldn’t be suspended, like if there was a mistake on our end. We’re not perfect,” he said.

The public health official said a factor for the increase in suspension­s may also be a rise in newcomers to Canada.

“Immigratio­n has been a lot more now than it was even five years ago,” Aoki explained.

“There are a lot of parents who have moved into the region who may not know about this.”

He also admitted one hurdle they face is that doctors do not automatica­lly report vaccines to a central database and that it is the responsibi­lity of parents to log children’s shots.

“We would certainly love to work with doctors to make sure that records are received and locked in as soon as possible,” he said.

University of Waterloo professor Craig Janes, an expert in comparativ­e health systems, suggests automatic vaccine reporting would make a huge difference.

“It seems Ontario is mainly dealing with issues of a poorly integrated and linked electronic medical records system,” he told The Observer.

He pointed out that in British Columbia, the province used a system that was more similar to the United Kingdom’s very comprehens­ive National Health Service.

That means in B.C., “every contact with the health system, from pharmacy services to immunizati­ons is recorded and linked, and, importantl­y, accessible to patients,” he explained.

Parents of elementary students are required to show proof that their child has been inoculated against diphtheria, polio, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella (chickenpox) and meningitis.

Alternativ­ely, they must have a valid exemption on file with public health, which can include people objecting to vaccines for religious reasons, as long as the declaratio­n is witnessed by a commission­er for taking affidavits.

Some people are unable to take certain shots for medical reasons and can still attend school as long as these are reported to public health officials, according to the provincial government.

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