Vaccine Policy Alternatives in Schools

There has been a lot more heat than light generated in discussions of Covid-19 vaccine mandates in Alberta schools.  Every day at Parents for Choice in Education, we speak with parents and teachers who are very concerned.  Thirty-four of Alberta’s 63 school boards have passed vaccine mandates for their staff at time of writing – some of which offer no other option than vaccination or removal. This is partly in response to a letter from the Education Minister on October 5, 2021, which recommended the policy – although she did not recommend a vaccination-only approach. Certainly, worldwide discussions are acrimonious, which tends to produce an environment of apprehension.

In all of this, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) has managed to be a voice of reason on vaccination mandates.  In spite of their policies as of December 1, 2021, that indicate that only very few circumstances would warrant legitimate exemptions to vaccine mandates, its September 28, 2021 document supporting vaccination measures calls for boards to “not impose disciplinary measures for non-compliance, but provide non-disciplinary alternatives to vaccination” such as ongoing submission of test results. Critically, the ATA sees vaccine mandates as “complimentary to, but do not replace or pre-empt, other measures.” While their policy statement is only intended to apply to staff and teachers, it presumably could apply to policies regarding students as well.

The problem, of course, is that it is hard for a school board to see what a coherent set of Covid measures might look like.  Policy options are hard to come by, and the options are becoming more constrained by the day. At time of writing, Alberta’s double vaccination rate was 84.6%, compared to 68.4% in the United Kingdom, 58% in the United States, and 74.4% in Australia. It is significantly above the Canadian national average of 76%. Insistence on vaccinating the few people left is not likely to move the needle on Covid much.  Indeed, a recent study shows that vaccination does not actually prevent transmission, even in households. Attempts to pursue strong measures generate opposition: the skeptical can literally point to hundreds of studies suggesting that compulsory Covid measures are counterproductive. Insistence on vaccination as the primary containment measure chases a set of diminishing returns. For parents who are concerned, being told that the risk that their children have of becoming severely ill from exposure to covid is low is not enough. So, what is the answer?

Our purpose today is to do as the ATA suggests and develop a policy framework for school boards dealing with Covid.  Hopefully, this will offer some broader options than are currently available with the current focus on vaccination mandates – and help to relieve some of the pressure and acrimony of discussions. We are going to take as our jumping-off point an article by influential blogger Tomas Pueyo.

Pueyo remarks that the point of Covid containment measures is to reduce the infection rate as much as possible – as cheaply as possible. He suggests that there are four layers to a defense against Covid:

  1. A “Fence” approach, to prevent incoming infections. On the macro scale, this means banning people coming from high-infection areas, as well as testing and quarantining new arrivals.
  2. Social Distancing, to minimize the number of people with whom the infected may come into contact.
  3. “Contrafection,” or minimizing the likelihood of infection when contact is made, including masking.
  4. Testing, tracing, and isolating to catch and neutralize infections.

The cumulative effect is like having a mask with many layers – what isn’t stopped by one layer is stopped by another. It isn’t just something done by the nation-state, however: Pueyo suggests that we can replicate this at a local level as well – adding an extra level of defense to make our schools safer.

The key consideration is cost, which we will identify as having three potential forms:

  • Economic cost is the simplest to discuss. We can potentially quantify it in dollars and cents.  Increased staffing would be an example.
  • Social cost is another expense. Harm done to human development is one form of social cost – strained relations with stakeholders another.
  • Risk costs are a third category. Medical risk – the thing we are trying to avoid – is a risk cost.  So, however, are the potential legal struggles that a board may find itself involved in. 

We have focused on policy options within this framework and have created a separate subpage to describe each layer in turn, all of which can be accessed from the list of links directly below:

1. The Fence

2. Social Distancing

3. Contrafection - minimizing infection

4. Test, Trace, and Isolate

Conclusion

As you can see after exploring each layer, almost all Covid-19 interventions by a school board carry costs – whether that cost is economic, social, or associated with legal risk.  The point to this four-layer model is that it maximizes protection while minimizing the costs of the protection offered. Using four layers of protection means that a board can avoid a particular protective measure if it is deemed costly in economic or social terms.  In other words, we have options: just because a particular measure is effective in reducing our medical risks doesn’t mean we have to use it if it entails other costs. If a board feels that the cost of a vaccine mandate – or even a mask mandate – is too much, there are other options available.   The trick, as Pueyo suggests, is to make sure that there are layers to the board’s Covid defense – not putting all eggs into a single basket.  It will take some work – but reducing the economic, social, and legal risk costs is worth it.

The best of all anti-Covid measures is clearly testing or establishing natural immunity.  In an environment where we still have a lot to learn about how the virus spreads, it is the only measure that we are certain will be effective, and testing forms an entire layer of defense on its own. Testing - especially rapid antigen testing- is inexpensive, both financially and in terms of social costs. Compared to the high fiscal, social, and legal costs of mandatory vaccination programs, it is a clear winner.

Strategies that could prove useful include taking advantage of federal and provincial rapid antigen test programs, improving ventilation and heating, staggering lunch hours and consolidating learning pods, and reducing inter-school events.  School boards with classroom space or empty buildings available should look closely at reducing classroom sizes to create smaller learning pods.  Smaller and rural school boards may need few measures beyond testing, due to their naturally small learning pods.

A key concern regarding contrafection is the perceived political risk for school boards.  The current political environment involves a lot of fear. It appears to demand that “something should be done,” and vaccine mandates are the most obvious kind of “doing something”.  Trustees may fear that they will become Girardian scapegoats if they resist. However, public panic fades and is forgotten – and it will be four years until the next election.  The anger of the people that a board coerces or fires, however, will linger forever.  Machiavelli’s advice is on point here – it does not really matter whether a politician is loved or feared, so long as she does not make herself hated.

From a parent’s point of view, it is fairly obvious what needs to be done.  Concerned parents have been “voting with their feet” in droves.  A 100% increase in home education and a 20% increase in private education in the first year of the pandemic tells us the story.  Most public school boards have not handled Covid well, and parents are moving to take control over their children’s education.  For concerned parents who are still engaged with the public system – whether convinced of its merits, or too financially constrained to use other avenues – it is important for them to talk to their trustees, make known the variety of alternatives available and insist that trustees avoid vaccination mandates – whether for staff or students.  The threat of parents taking other options such as home education or private schools is a real one. They need to point out the costs involved in other measures, such as mask mandates and remind trustees that their anger will outlast the pandemic if these concerns are not sufficiently addressed. Wise school boards will listen.

PCE provided this briefing note to all of Alberta's school trustees on December 16th, 2021.