Some 15% of primary and secondary school teachers and 10% of lecturers at the Community College were still unvaccinated against COVID-19 as of Friday, the day by which they are legally required to take the jab or be deemed to have abandoned their jobs.
Some of the unvaccinated teachers are still awaiting word on their application to be exempted from the vaccination on medical or religious grounds, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said on radio on Sunday.
“The numbers that I got by midday on Friday, were 90 something per cent of the persons at the following areas: at the prisons, the police, the customs, immigration, nurses, doctors — both in the hospital services and the community health services, the ports, the airports, and 85% in relation to the teachers, both in primary and secondary, and a number around 90% at the community college,” he said on WE FM’s Issue At Hand.
“I think one is in the late 80s and the rest are in the 90s. In fact, as far as the nursing school is concerned, the lecturers are 100% vaccinated.“
The prime minister said that as a consequence of “the slower movement among the teachers”, the Ministry of Education, “given the extent of the importance of educating our children and to keeping them safe in school and also for their health” had to make sure there was an adequate supply of teachers for those who were unvaccinated as of Nov. 19, the date on which the mandate came into effect.
He said that the ministry could not wait until the expiration of “the so-called 10-day grace period” — that ended on Friday — that is written into the law mandating COVID-19 vaccination for a wide cross-section of state employees that have been deemed “frontline” workers.
Gonsalves said that the government wanted to make sure that it was prepared and, therefore, on Nov. 24, there was an advertisement for persons who want to teach.
The prime minister said he was told that up to Saturday morning 91 teachers have been hired on short-term contracts to teach largely in the primary schools, though some will teach secondary schools.
“Now, they probably need a number close to that number again not to be particularly short and I think they are still interviewing and contacting persons, including retired teachers.
“And we had made it plain and the Cabinet has decided, on my recommendation, that in terms of any retired teacher who decides to come back, who is vaccinated, they could get a short-term contract and they will be paid their pensions whilst they get their salary on whatever this short-term contract is”.
The prime minister said that the government has a high responsibility to make sure that the students are in a safe environment, that persons who are teaching them are vaccinated, and that other people who are around, including ancillary workers, such as cooks and janitors, are vaccinated.
“And also high on the totem pole that the students be taught. There is no pulling away from those obligations.”
He responded, apparently preemptively, to comments about the government spending extra money in hiring other teachers, adding that since the mandate came into effect some teachers have taken the jab.
“Well, I say fine. Even if for a short period of time you have additional teachers, in addition to those existing ones, so be it.”
Gonsalves said he was told that there are “different kinds of people applying and they are being hired.
“There is a significant number of actually qualified teachers who are working at other things or not working at all. That is to say, young people who went to Teachers’ College”.
The prime minister said that in addition to “80% of teachers who have taken the vaccines”, there are some persons who are awaiting letters regarding whether they have been granted an exemption on medical or religious grounds “and an accommodation can be made.
“Because you may not make it on religious grounds, you may not cut the exemption on religious grounds, and if you don’t cut it on religious grounds, that is the end of that matter. If you do, you still have to have the hurdle that an accommodation can be made for you.”
The accommodation refers to whether the government can place the persons receiving the exemption in a post for which vaccination is not required.
The prime minister said he had not been aware of the number of people who have not taken the vaccine and have “alive exemptions” applications, noting that most of such applications have come from teachers.
The prime minister said he suspects that if the office of the chief personnel office gives their ruling by Monday or Tuesday, it would be open to the applicant whether in the next day or two to decide whether they would take the vaccine.
Gonsalves said that because he is minister of national security, the permanent secretary told him on Saturday that the commissioner of police had indicated that “persons who have applied for religious exemption they have no accommodation because they don’t want to hold up the post.
“They can’t do it. They don’t have anywhere in the frontline of the police force to do that. But, when I see the data, there may well be, John Browne who has a religious exemption, who can’t stay inside the police force, obviously, during the time of the pandemic, you may need a security officer at the Attorney General’s Chambers for instance. A person, conceivably, could be assigned there. I know they would be one position short in the police force, but there are other positions which we are going to fill — 100 or so, we are going to train 100; I think that’s the new estimate.
“But you notice what I am saying from my standpoint, and the way the rules are written, we will make every effort but we are constrained by practical circumstances in making the accommodation…
“You notice on this matter I am being completely reasonable but one thing is absolutely clear. We have an obligation to have our children safe at school, including their health. That is to say, the state and the government representing the state, representing the community, and similarly, for teachers to be in the classroom.”