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Ecclesiastical Commission reluctant to oversee vaccine religious exemptions

By Carlena Knight

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As the November 11 deadline approaches for the student vaccine mandate, parents seeking religious exemptions – especially those among the Rastafarian community – may experience a setback.

This minor delay is not due to the actions of the Ministry of Education, or the students and parents themselves, but because of a new revelation that the Ecclesiastical Commission of Antigua and Barbuda is not comfortable with granting exemptions for those from the Rastafarian faith.

The group was given the directive by Cabinet to oversee all religious exemptions for students some weeks ago, but according to Education Minister Daryll Matthew, the body has declared its inability to carry out that process.

“The initial thinking of the Cabinet, and the initial position that was taken by the Cabinet, was that these would be handled by the religious body here in Antigua and Barbuda, but they have since … indicated that they are not properly positioned to adjudicate exemptions for one religious group only, which is the Rastafarians, given that their membership are primarily non-Rastafarian persons,” Matthew said.

He did however mention that the ministry is trying to put measures in place to rectify this matter.

“We need to review that process to determine exactly how it is going to be handled, given that the religious organisation (Ecclesiastical Commission] has indicated that they are not properly positioned,” Matthew added.

The Commission has deferred comment to a later date.

The mandate stipulates that pupils 12 years and older must have had at least one dose of a Covid shot by November 11 or risk losing access to face-to-face learning.

Parents can however seek an exemption on either medical or religious grounds for their children.

A special committee chaired by Director of Education Clare Browne is now in place to review medical exemptions, according to Matthew, and the process has begun.

However, some parents say they are having great difficulty in obtaining exemption letters from medical practitioners, pertaining to their children’s health.

One mother told Observer that she was seeking a medical exemption letter from her daughter’s paediatrician, who apparently told her flatly that she won’t provide it.

The doctor allegedly confessed that she feared for her job following pronouncements by the government that doctors’ licences will be revoked if they provide phony exemption letters.

Another mother is also worried that her son may not be able to return to the classroom because she won’t get him vaccinated.

She said her son has been allergic to many foods and medications since he was very young, and she is refusing to risk what she views as an experimental vaccine.

The mother was told to get an antibody test for her son to prove that he is in fact allergic to the vaccine. However, the young mother said she won’t waste money on a test when she has already made her mind up about the jab.

Meanwhile, education officials are discussing how best they can accommodate students whose parents refuse to get them inoculated against Covid.

Discussions are still underway to finalise plans for vaccine distribution in the various schools.

The education minister had initially proclaimed that the programme would begin this week, but after reaching out to officials in the Ministry of Health, they have clarified that the matter is still being discussed.

Students returned to school on Tuesday as part of the tier two approach to learning which sees children in the classroom on a rotation system.

Almost 6,000 students of the approximately 8,000 eligible for vaccination, according to Matthew, have been vaccinated so far.

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