Principal argues government’s vaccine mandate for students is discriminatory

Principal of the Ottos Comprehensive School, Foster Roberts (file photo)
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By Kadeem Joseph

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The principal one of the nation’s high schools has expressed concern that the government’s vaccine mandate for secondary school students over the age of 12 and are eligible to take the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, is a form of “discrimination”.

Speaking on the Big Issues yesterday, Principal of the Ottos Comprehensive School (OCS), Foster Roberts explained that it is a “very difficult time” for educators who understand their responsibility to educate the country’s children, in alignment with laws and conventions the country presently observes, and observing the government’s mandate which saw students who were yet to be vaccinated restricted from face-to-face learning.

He said while he believes in vaccines, having taken them all his life, the mandate is problematic because “it appears in its very nature to discriminate” against children and “if any child is discriminated against, then all children are discriminated against for their education”.

Roberts, also referencing the Education Act, which states that every child shall attend school after he or she attains the age (five years) as prescribed in an order made by the minister, up until the school year in which the child attains 16 years of age, or until the child obtains a certificate or diploma awarded by the minister.

“I do not think, at this time, our children are getting the best education possible when some are allowed to be in school and others are not, through no fault of their own,” he added.

He said the mandate, in essence, denies the children their right to an education. 

Roberts is also concerned about students who have just started the last year of high school possibly being missing out on writing the Caribbean Secondary Examination Certificate (CSEC) examinations, because of a decision taken by their parents.

“Who is going to tell me that it is fair that such a child who has gone through the secondary school education system for the last five years, now that the child is at the age where he has a right to write the examination that he is barred from writing the exam simply because of a mandate that was given?” he queried.

The principal said that at present, the OCS has 121 students in 5th form, but only 62 per cent of them have been vaccinated, and with the sign-up period for CSEC exams starting today, he questions what would happen to the over 30 percent of them who remain unvaccinated during the registration period which ends on November 30th.

Last Thursday, Cabinet Spokesperson, Information Minister Melford Nicholas reassured that students affected by the mandate would have access to remote learning, adding that the necessary systems are largely in place for that option to be accessed immediately.

However, he added that education officials may have some fine-tuning to do in ensuring the necessary resources are in place for this strategy, but the Ministry of Education is yet to announce publicly how this will be achieved.

That being said, Nicholas advised parents that they are expected to ensure their children access an education, whether that is via remote learning or by permitting them to get vaccinated and return to the classroom.

Meanwhile, Dr George Roberts, an ear nose and throat specialist in Antigua and Barbuda, who was a panellist on the same Big Issues discussion, said vaccine mandates are not new and pointed to the list of vaccines required by law for students before they enter school.

“In addition to that, we talk about discriminating against children, but I don’t see it as discrimination because all children are given the same option; it’s how you respond to it in terms of the way you go,” he added.

He said the present situation is very difficult, noting that in lieu of the mandate, allowing all children to return to school and an outbreak in the school is spread to the community, “there would be a lot of people with a lot of antagonistic ideas to that”.

He also highlighted the increased dangers posed to younger people by the Delta variant of the Covid virus, which had affected adults more deleteriously when it was first discovered.

Dr Patrick Martin, a former chief medical officer in St Kitts and Nevis, also spoke to the matter.

He pointed to Cuba where children as young as two years are being vaccinated, and about 70 percent of the eligible population have been fully vaccinated, with another 18 percent being partially inoculated against the Covid-19 virus. 

“Active cases and daily deaths in Cuba have plummeted to near January levels pre-Delta. Cuba is about to open up. Cuba is a success story of indigenous innovation plus community action based on some mandates; we have to see how we can take advantage of those lessons,” Dr Martin added.

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