The 2021-22 school year doesn’t officially start for more than a month, but the clock is ticking for local educators and health officials to get youth aged 12 to 17 fully immunized against COVID-19 before they start returning to class.

The Thames Valley District School Board issued a reminder to parents and guardians Thursday saying that students aged 12 to 17 must receive their first COVID-19 shot by Saturday to ensure they’ll be fully vaccinated by the time school starts.

“Vaccination is not mandatory to attend school in the Middlesex-London region, but it’s so important,” said Dr. Alex Summers, the region’s medical officer of health during the July 22 media briefing.

“We really hope (that) in order for us to make sure that our schools are as safe as possible, that everyone who’s eligible to receive that vaccine — (age) 12 and older — is vaccinated fully before going back to school.”

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According to the health unit’s most recent data, 73.3 per cent of people aged 12 to 17 have already gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 26 per cent have received both. Overall, the region’s vaccination rate sits at 79 per cent for first doses and 56.6 per cent for both doses for all residents 12 and up.

“Over 90 per cent of all of us will have to be vaccinated to protect those who cannot get vaccinated for whatever reason. So when we look at the 12 to 17-year-olds, it’s critical that they get vaccinated, not just for their health, but for those around them,” Summers said.

Currently, the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only one approved for use in the 12-17 age group in Canada. The interval between first and second doses for the shot is four weeks. It then takes another two weeks after the second dose to be considered fully vaccinated.

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While vaccination is not currently mandatory for students, Summers says being immunized will mean not being sent home from school and quarantined in the event a case or an outbreak arises at school. There would be exceptions, he says, such as if a significant outbreak were reported where vaccinated individuals were getting sick, suggesting a more transmissible viral strain.

It’s not clear what percentage of local educators are vaccinated. A report last week by The Canadian Press found that the province, school boards and unions representing teachers and education workers are not keeping track of such data.

Health officials say it’s never been easier to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Mass vaccination clinics in London-Middlesex now offer walk-ins for both first and second doses, and the Middlesex-London Health Unit also has walk-in pop-up clinics scheduled at local schools over the next two and a half weeks.

Read more:
Survey says 95% of TVDSB students want in-person learning this September

The upcoming elementary and secondary school year comes after one unlike any other seen in recent memory, full of province-wide lockdowns, school outbreaks and weeks of isolated remote learning.

A vast majority of students within the Thames Valley District School Board, 95 per cent, have opted to return to in-person learning for the 2021-22 year, according to a recent survey conducted by the board. The province is requiring school boards to offer a remote learning option for students.

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The Thames Valley District School Board and London District Catholic School Board did not respond to a 980 CFPL request for comment on their plans for the upcoming year by publishing time.

Late last month, Riley Culhane, TVDSB’s associate education director, told the London Free Press that the board would be planning “for both our elementary and our secondary students to return in-person every day all day,” under the assumption that vaccination rates would continue to be promising.

The Ford government is expected to unveil a provincial back-to-school plan in the coming weeks, however, an exact timeline is unclear. Officials have said things like masking, hand hygiene and screening will be among the measures included.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 vaccine certificates could speed up reopening: Ontario science table'

COVID-19 vaccine certificates could speed up reopening: Ontario science table

COVID-19 vaccine certificates could speed up reopening: Ontario science table

Craig Smith, president of the Thames Valley local of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, told 980 CFPL Wednesday that the prevalence of the vaccine had made a major difference when it came to COVID-19, however concerns remained over the more contagious Delta variant and the province’s yet-to-be-released plans.

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“Some legitimate questions (need) to be asked in terms of what the plan is, not only reopening and restarting our schools in September as we normally would, but being able to make sure that that opening is sustainable through the school year,” Smith said.

No vaccine is currently approved for use by children under the age of 12 and it’s not clear when one will be. Pfizer and Moderna are both conducting clinical trials.

Dr. Summers noted Thursday that it was his understanding that Health Canada was still reviewing and awaiting further information from vaccine makers when it came to the safety and efficacy of the vaccine in early years students.

“At this point in time, we don’t yet know what the time frame is for this. I don’t think it’ll necessarily be in place for September, maybe later on in the fall, but again, I don’t have any inside track on that,” he said.

The majority of students in the elementary panel, who are taught by elementary teachers, fall under the age of 12, Smith says.

“The overwhelming majority of those students are not vaccinated, and there are no plans at this point, it seems, [to have] anything in place to vaccinate them. That is going to lead to some serious questions about what factors are put in place in elementary schools to make sure that both staff and students are safe.”

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Read more:
2 shots of Pfizer vaccine 88% effective against Delta variant: study

Earlier this week, the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table issued recommendations for the 2021-22 school year, calling for the return of extracurriculars, loosening masking, distancing and cohorting rules when risk is low, and closing schools only in catastrophic scenarios. “Low-risk,” according to the science advisory table, is when hospitalizations are “limited and sporadic.”

Masks could be optional if infection rates and severe disease remain low, but masking guidance in schools should follow community guidance for indoor settings, the experts write. Outdoor masking isn’t recommended except when community transmission is high and distancing isn’t possible.

Proper handwashing, having staff and students stay home when sick, upgrading indoor air quality systems, and enhanced cleaning measures should be considered permanent measures, they say.

Those recommendations, however, are just that: recommendations.

“The jury’s out on where the government will land on those sound recommendations. It’s tough to know, because I think we have a government that’s fixated on two things: money and politics,” Smith said.

“Their decision-making in the past has been informed largely by those, so where they fall with regards to the recommendations from bodies like the science table really remain to be seen. The sooner we have that the better, I think, that boards as employers are able to plan for, and parents are able to know what they’re sending their kids into,” he continued.

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— With files from The Canadian Press

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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