How vaccine demands are impacting international schools

As the pandemic rolls on, international schools face varying degrees of legal requirements for staff to ensure they are vaccinated, finds Sean Smith

Sean Smith

Vaccine passports for FE students 'premature', says AoC

“It’s not mandatory but it is strongly encouraged.'”

Liz Free, chief executive of International School, Rheintal, echoes the views of many international leaders when it comes to how they are managing the issue of staff vaccinations.

After all, there could well be legal complexities in any attempt to enforce vaccination on an individual.

But with many nations starting to create rules around the need to be vaccinated, it may be that “strong encouragement” has to turn into something more stringent if staff are to remain working in post.

Need to be vaccinated 

For example, Free explains that the Swiss local authorities are establishing expectations around vaccination indirectly: “Staff can only attend training conferences if they are fully vaccinated and or have had a full PCR test within 48 hours,” she says.

This certainly could make it hard for staff to further their career as a result. “It is going to be increasingly difficult to attend professional activities if you are not vaccinated,” notes Free.

Of course it's not just fear of missing out on professional development that is driving staff vaccination – many are more than willing to do so – and still use other measures, too.

“Some staff are very concerned and will continue to use masks when unable to maintain safe social distancing.” 

However, Free thinks it unlikely that mandatory vaccination would ever become official school policy: “Each member of staff must take responsibility for their own health choices and make a decision that is right for them.”

Rapid uptake

On the other side of the world, in China, it’s a similar story, as Steve Allen, headmaster at Lady Eleanor Holles International School Foshan, explains.

“While vaccination has not been made mandatory, staff have happily been vaccinated – policy has been to strongly encourage but this has not really been necessary.”

However, in other areas, it certainly hasn’t hurt that wider government policies have made vaccinations an almost prerequisite for schools to function as normal, without going as far as legally requiring it.

For example, in Hong Kong, the Government Education Bureau is linking how open schools can be with rates of vaccination, as Mark Steed, principal and chief executive of Kellett School, the British school in Hong Kong, explains.

“From the end of September, they’re only allowing schools to open for the whole day and to offer extracurricular activities if they meet the threshold where 70 per cent of staff and pupils are fully vaccinated. This is because of concerns around lunchtime transmission when pupils unmask to eat.”

Steed thinks that government guidelines mean that “there is already an expectation around staff vaccination” which means that most staff have understood the need to ensure they are vaccinated.

This is reinforced by the views of parents who are keen to avoid more disruption to their children’s education: “Most parents think we should be as open as normal,” he adds.

Given all this, it is perhaps also no surprise that staff uptake of vaccines is high, with 96 per cent of all staff now vaccinated.

Those who refuse

However, as the final 4 per cent shows, not all staff want to be vaccinated – putting leaders in a tough position.

This is something that Rob Ford, director of Heritage International School in Chisinau, Moldova, is dealing with at first hand.

“People have said outright that they will not have a vaccine. Not many, but a handful, and we continue to work on this from an information point of view, going through their concerns and factually explaining how the vaccines work,” he explains.

This situation has meant that the school has had to ask non-vaccinated staff to attend large gatherings remotely and miss out on a recent induction day as part of the new term.

This situation could change, though, as the government recently said that schools must have 70 per cent of staff vaccinated by 1 September and then 95 per cent by October 1. However, this has caused consternation among the profession in country, with unions unhappy with this move.

“This has now become the battleground for education in Moldova,” says Ford.

For him, a solution to this situation would be to make vaccinations a legal requirement.

“As an international school, we have a whole host of vaccine requirements and medical checks to pass for our international staff to come and work in Moldova,” he notes.

“I am in favour of this being a legal requirement for the Covid vaccine in the same way, with genuine medical exemptions allowed, but those having to regularly test. I think it is the only way we can have a full, safe physical year in school.”

A simple solution

This is the route other nations have already gone down and schools in these nations admit it has made life easier. In Egypt, Matt Topliss, principal at El Alsson British and American International School, near Cairo, explains that, until recently, the school’s policy on staff vaccination had been one of “quiet encouragement” because fitful supplies of the vaccine were proving to be something of a logistical barrier.

However, because of a potential fourth wave of infections in the country over winter, the Ministry of Health is now mandating all school staff to register for vaccination by 7 September.

He says this move by the government was welcome for providing clarity on what is required: “It’s a decision we have not taken but one that has been handed to us. From my point of view, I think it is a step forward that hopefully brings us closer to ‘normality’ sooner,” says Topliss.

The school is doing what it can to help on this, too, and get as many staff vaccinated by the 7 September deadline.

“We have been able to secure on-site vaccination for our staff who are still waiting. We are also speaking one to one with anyone who is reluctant or would like more information.”

A new passport requirement?

The move to mandatory vaccines is something that is also happening in Malaysia where, adjusting for population size, the daily reported cases are among the highest globally.

As a result of this, the education ministry in the country announced that schools can’t fully reopen until October 3 at the earliest, by which time all staff members must be vaccinated.

Chris Barnes, a senior leader at a school in Johor Bahru in Malaysia, says this means the school has moved to a position where ensuring vaccination compliance is of the utmost importance.

“All staff have to complete a chart for HR confirming that they have received their first and (if applicable) second dose of the vaccine. It’s really a question of ‘sharing shortcuts’ and informally helping staff avail themselves of the right vaccine by putting them in touch with local vaccination centres,” says Barnes.

Once this is done he says the key is ensuring parents are aware of the fact that staff are vaccinated: “Parents are all still very concerned about Covid and what will happen when schools are given permission to reopen.”

To help with this, staff in Malaysia will be expected to demonstrate their vaccination status through a QR code link to a digital certificate on a government app.

Moreover, mandatory vaccination will inevitably shape the school’s recruitment strategy for the foreseeable future. “All new and incoming (expat) staff have to be vaccinated in order to enter Malaysia,” says Barnes.

Although, at the moment, Egypt and Malaysia may seem to be ahead of the curve in terms of their “no jab, no job” policies, perhaps it is a sign of things to come.

If so, then as part of the “new normal” the pandemic has created, teachers wishing to work in international schools may well find they have more than one passport they’ll need to keep up to date.

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Sean Smith

Sean Smith is a former vice principal and freelance education journalist

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