With students heading back to school in just under three weeks, school and public health officials are feeling confident about the vaccination uptake among eligible students.
However, based on Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH) data, vaccination rates vary and some high schools in the region are well behind in their percentage of fully vaccinated students.
As of Wednesday, the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) has 77 per cent of its students vaccinated with at least one dose and 66 per cent fully vaccinated.
Two Wellington County high schools, Norwell DSS in Palmerston and Wellington Heights SS in Mount Forest, are among the schools with the lowest vaccination rates in their students.
The two schools sit at around 50 per cent of students fully vaccinated with Centre Dufferin DHS in Shelburne and Guelph’s College Heights SS at a similar rate.
Comparatively, Guelph’s Centennial CVI and GCVI, as well as Centre Wellington DHS in Fergus have around 75 per cent of their students fully vaccinated, with higher student populations as well.
“We appreciate that there is currently a difference between vaccination rates in schools and appreciate that public health continues to provide additional opportunities for staff and eligible students to receive vaccinations,” said Heather Loney, UGDSB communications officer, in an email.
“Accessibility and education about vaccinations are two important components that we know public health is currently focused on providing.”
Michael Glazier, director of education for the Wellington Catholic District School Board, said they are seeing a good uptake among students with nearly 80 per cent receiving one dose and 71 per cent fully vaccinated.
St. John Bosco Catholic School is slightly behind the other three Catholic high schools in the area at around 56 per cent fully vaccinated, which is 10 to 20 per cent lower than the others.
However, the school with the lowest vaccination rate is not at a publicly funded school.
Emmanuel Christian High School (ECHS), a private school in Fergus, has under 20 per cent of their students fully vaccinated, at 34 per cent with at least a single dose with a student population of 169.
Stephen DeBoer, ECHS principal, said via email there is certainly hesitancy in their supporting community to vaccinate those under 18 but he dosen't believe it is the school's right to sway people into getting vaccinated against COVID or speculate on why some will choose not to.
“ECHS is considered a parental school, that is, it is our mandate to assist parents in the education of their children,” DeBoer explained.
“Throughout the pandemic ECHS has done its utmost to support the work of public health including sharing information regarding vaccinations. We respect our parents’ authority to decide whether or not to vaccinate their children.”
Dr. Matthew Tenenbaum, associate medical officer of health for WDGPH, said they are pleased to see students and families stepping up to get vaccinated but acknowledged there is a gap between some schools.
“The variability of vaccination rates between schools tells us there is still more work to be done,” Tenenbaum said via email.
Tenenbaum said the health unit is working to provide more convenient opportunities for students and school staff to get vaccinated as “vaccination is an essential component of a safe school year.”
However, he also acknowledged this is not the only measure schools are taking.
Loney explained all UGDSB schools continue to follow health and safety protocols such as masking for all students, screening and improving air quality in classrooms among others.
“Schools will continue to focus on following safety protocols and daily COVID screening to support schools as safe places to work and learn,” Loney said.
Glazier stressed there is still an opportunity for those who have not received a COVID vaccine as of yet.
“While they won’t be double vaccinated by the time school starts, it puts them on the path for full vaccination,” Glazier said, adding WDGPH sources indicate even a single dose has an impact on COVID symptoms and reduces risk of hospitalization.
Glazier also noted recent provincial guidelines on how positive COVID cases are handled in schools differ for close contacts depending on their vaccination status.
The guidelines state students and staff in a school who are at high risk of contact with a case of COVID will not need to self-isolate if they are asymptomatic.
“As a result, there is an incentive for students to be fully vaccinated,” Glazier said. “ It significantly reduces the amount of time that a student may miss in-person classes or extra-curricular sports or clubs.”
Tenenbaum said public health understands it is important for students’ well-being to return to in-person learning as long as it's safe to do so.
With a more transmissible Delta variant, he said there is a risk of outbreaks in the fall.
“However, we also know that our current vaccines have been shown to provide good protection against the Delta variant,” Tenenbaum said.
“As our vaccination rates in schools increase, this will help control the level of disruption that outbreaks will ultimately have in schools.”
The first day of school for students is Sept. 7.
Vaccination rates at schools in this public health region can be found here.