Dan Glasscock, the traffic safety officer for School District 23 and the City of Kelowna, helps students and families cross Ziprick Road outside of Springvalley Middle and Elementary schools during the first day of school on Sept. 7. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)

COVID vaccine debate a minefield for Central Okanagan teachers to navigate

Parents increasingly sensitive to what is told to students

Susan Bauhart knew it was coming.

As Bauhart, president of the Central Okanagan Teachers Association, sat down in the public gallery for the Sept. 15, meeting of the Central Okanagan Board of Education, she was encircled by parents who she knew were prepared to speak out about how COVID-19 public health policies being addressed in the classroom.

“This is why I have been nervous since school started. Teachers are in a no-win position on this,” Bauhart said.

“It is a tricky road to navigate for teachers as kids do ask questions about COVID and you feel obligated to respond because you are trying to build relationships with your students.”

But Bauhart says the challenge is when kids go home and relay what was talked about, how that is related and received can lead to annoyed parents on both sides of the divisive COVID-19 vaccine debate.

She said teachers have no specific direction from the BC Teachers’ Federation on how to address COVID issues to students in the classroom, while Central Okanagan Public Schools set district-wide policies that teachers are expected to follow, but have the autonomy as to how that is done in the classroom.

READ MORE: Patient says Kelowna hospital wrong target for anti-vaccine card wrath

A trio of parents spoke at the Central Okanagan Board of Education meeting, voicing anecdotal accusations of teachers creating a discriminatory atmosphere in schools between students who are vaccinated and those who are not, and unchecked peer pressure imposed on students within the school environment.

They also cited examples they’ve heard about inappropriate language expressed by teachers to influence students to get vaccinated.

One of the parents asked directly if a directive has been issued to teachers on how specifically they are to speak with students about COVID.

Kevin Kaardal, superintendent/CEO of Central Okanagan Public Schools, responded the school district has clear inclusive philosophy policies that are to be followed by all public schools, but it doesn’t dictate how teachers carry out those policies in the classroom.

“It would be inappropriate if a teacher told a student to get a vaccine,” Kaardal said.

Bauhart acknowledged teachers have the responsibility to deliver a curriculum in the classroom.

“How they do it, what methods or what resources they use is really their choice,” she said.

Moyra Baxter, chair of the board of education, said the school board should not be the first stop for any parents with complaints about a teacher.

“There is a process in place and we encourage all parents to follow that process on any issue they have concerns with about a teacher,” Baxter said.

Baxter said parents should first meet with the teacher, and if unsatisfied with that outcome then approach the school principal. Then the school district human resources administrators can get involved.

“If you are still not happy with the outcome at that stage, then come before the board,” Baxter said.

Bauhart agrees with Baxter’s reasoning to follow the process, as it protects both the interests of the parents and the teacher.

“Those processes are defined and it is my job in part to ensure those processes are followed from the teacher’s perspective,” she said.

She said not all teachers are supportive of the vaccine initiative for students age 12 and older either, so the advocacy concerns of what and how information is projected to students fall on both sides of the issue.

Bauhart acknowledged societal grievances that split communities can often become “a powderkeg” in the classroom for teachers to face, noting the hardline approaches of both sides currently on the vaccine debate.

“Teachers have the best interests of their students at heart. We are not coming to school to put kids in danger,” Bauhart said.

“Teachers are definitely working every day to keep kids safe. They are nervous for themselves, and for the kids.”

Bauhart said it is disheartening to be confronted by the COVID health crisis in schools in September when there was such optimism in June when summer vacation arrived that returning to school in the fall would be a return to normal –no masks, no cohorts, a return of extra-curricular activities.

“The sad part is everybody honestly felt for (the 2021-22) school year we’d be in a whole different position than we were the previous year,” she lamented.

READ MORE: Parents demand Peachland, Westside students need a seat on school bus

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