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Lax vax record keeping leads to hundreds of suspension notices

Although some students and parents needed stern reminders and hundreds of students have faced suspensions, the vast majority of Sudbury families adhere to the need for students to be vaccinated against childhood diseases
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Sudbury's Board of Health was told May 16 that the number of Sudbury area school students not compliant with the mandatory immunizations is very low, but hundreds of local students received brief suspensions this year because their parents were unable to provide up-to-date vaccine records.

This followed a presentation to the board by Stacey Gilbeau, director and Chief Nursing Officer, and Stephanie Hastie, program specialist, from Public Health Sudbury & Districts.

Their presentation was an overview of mandatory immunizations that students are required to receive, said Gilbeau. 

She said the program is run through the provincial Immunization of School Pupils Act (ISPA).

"This past school year has afforded us the opportunity to continue our forward momentum, ensuring that students attending primary and secondary schools throughout our catchment area are protected and safe from infections and outbreaks in school that might disrupt learning and opportunities to grow and develop," said Gilbeau.

She said the immunization program protects youngsters against nine diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, meningococcal diseases and varicella (chickenpox).

There are exceptions, she said. Under the ISPA Act students can provide documentation of a medical exemption or an exemption for religious or conscientious reasons..

Although most publicly funded vaccines are administered by primary health providers, family doctors are not required to report to public health. The onus is on parents or guardians to keep their own record (yellow card) and report vaccines and immunizations to the local public health office.

Under the provincial law, Gilbeau said the health unit is required to collect, maintain, assess and enforce immunization requirements for the nine diseases. She said the need for vaccines is increasing at this time.

"Vaccine preventable diseases are increasing across the country, including in Ontario, there is a risk to children and schools for cases and outbreaks to occur," said Gilbeau.

She said work has been underway for months to streamline and improve the reporting process. She said that during 2022 and 2023 work was done to access and process immunization records into the provincial database.

"We are very happy to report that we have no pandemic backlog of entries, and we are well on our way to processing ISPA for the 2023-24 school year," said Gilbeau.

She said the immunization assessment process for the Sudbury health unit began last spring for elementary schools with enforcement happening in September, 2023. For secondary schools, the assessment began in March, 2024, with enforcement happening from April to June. There are 79 elementary schools and 24 secondary schools that are tracked. 

"The process depends on the participation and cooperation of school boards, principals and school operators, parents, guardians, students, and of course, a team of public health staff working together to achieve success," said Gilbeau. 

For her part, Hastie said Public Health worked quickly in the fall of 2023 to bring immunizations up to date in area schools. She said more than 4,500 notices, or first letters, were sent out advising parents/guardians that information was missing from elementary student immunization records.

Most people responded. Many others did not, said Hastie.

"We had just over 1,000 students that were suspended on day one, and the average length of the suspension period for those students was about 12 days," she told the board.

For the secondary students, more than 1,700 letters were sent out asking to provide updated immunization records. The letters were sent to students, parents and guardians. More than 400 families responded. This meant that roughly 1,270 second letters (notice of suspension) were then sent out. 

Hastie said there the process is still underway as this is the middle of May 

"We have 16 schools who have now completed their ISPA enforcement, so eight schools are ongoing. Today is day-one of our last schools who are starting suspension.  The total number of students suspended on day-one was 276. And the total number of students remaining as of this morning was 53 students. So overall, we've had an excellent response to our secondary school," said Hastie.

She described the overall response from secondary schools as excellent.

When asked by one board member if she could provide a percentage of the number of students that were suspended overall, Hastie said the number was low.

"So the number varies from year to year and cohort to cohort. On average, there's about 28,000 students in the school system enrolled in both primary and secondary schools. So the number of children overall that are suspended is very, very low," said Hastie. 

The Sudbury health unit communications office provided the following numbers on temporary suspensions:     

  • In the 2022/23 school year, there were 2 068 students suspended out of 28 869 students in primary and secondary schools, or 7.2 per cent of students. This marked our first Immunization of School Pupils Act (ISPA) enforcement post COVID-19 pandemic
  • In the 2023/24 school year, there were 1 063 students suspended in primary schools out of 19 811 students, or 5.4 per cent of primary school students
  •   In the 2023/24 school year, there were 273 students suspended in secondary schools out of 7 641 students, or 3.6 per cent of secondary school students.

Len Gillis covers health care and mining for Sudbury.com.


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Len Gillis

About the Author: Len Gillis

Graduating from the Journalism program at Canadore College in the 1970s, Gillis has spent most of his career reporting on news events across Northern Ontario with several radio, television and newspaper companies. He also spent time as a hardrock miner.
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