Vaccinated versus unvaccinated: Manitoba parents worry about stigma as school begins

As the new school year begins for Manitoba kids, the return to classes comes with some trepidation for parents amid the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Manitoba father of two Mike Powell says he has plenty of concerns as his kids go back to elementary school — especially since his region, the Rural Municipality of Hanover, has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the province.

Read more: COVID-19: Manitoba brings back mask mandate, requires vaccination for some government employees

Aside from being worried about catching the virus despite his children’s vaccination status, he said he’s also worried about kids and teens bullying each other over the issue.

Powell said despite the opposing views of many people in his community, he’s worked to teach his children the importance of masks and vaccines, and the importance of doing what they can to prevent further spread of the virus.

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“My view of being in full support of vaccination and masks definitely isn’t representative of the community I’m living in,” Powell said.

“If there wasn’t a mask mandate, most people wouldn’t be wearing masks — even indoors — by choice. I think that’s very telling where people are at — some people are just tired. It’s been a long year and a half of not doing what we want to be doing, but that’s just the reality at the moment.”

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Powell said his kids have never complained about wearing masks and following social distancing regulations, and have been very understanding and accepting of the disruptions to their daily lives.

Adults, on the other hand, are a different story.

“We see people who are reacting very negatively to those mandates — even when it comes to wearing a mask, which is very non-invasive.”

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“There’s a lot of resistance against doing that, and that is concerning as a parent.

“It’s frustrating for me to see that it’s become such a divisive issue, because it’s putting not only my kids at risk, but everyone’s kids at risk.”

And those divisive attitudes are being passed down from parents to their teens.

Read more: Teachers, divisions ready with plans to address student learning gaps due to COVID-19

Global News asked several local parents whether they worry about their kids being bullied for being vaccinated or unvaccinated this coming school year.

While all of them answered yes, only Powell was willing to talk about it on the record, as other parents feared their children could become targets at school.

Powell said he’d like to see Manitobans realize that fighting against COVID-19 isn’t a political issue or a religious one — it’s an issue of health and safety, and one that isn’t going away if people continue to treat restrictions as an attack on their individual freedoms, rather than a way to protect the community at large.

“We’re all connected, and what we do actually does affect another individual, so sending my kids to school is definitely concerning, even with the measures that are in place, because I don’t know if there’s enough support of those measures, and that puts all of us risk.

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“We told them before — just as with every other family situation — that not all families handle things the same way. People have different standards of different ideas of what’s right or wrong.

“It comes back to really teaching our kids about being kind and altruistic and looking to the other person first.”

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Manitoba’s vaccine task force medical lead Dr. Joss Reimer told Global News that if the province felt it had any other options to keep the community safe, it wouldn’t have put the public health orders into place.

“We want kids getting back into school. We want them back in their sports, in their dance classes, in their art classes. Getting vaccinated is the best way we can avoid outbreaks and protect those kids,” she said.

“Even if you think maybe kids aren’t as high-risk for the severe outcomes, like ending up in the hospital, what we’re seeing in the States is a lot of kids still ending up in the hospital, and if they don’t, a lot of them are experiencing what we call ‘long COVID,’ which is symptoms that last for months and months after the infection is gone.

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“We want to protect kids from all of those things and get them back into everything that they love.”

Reimer said health officials — who usually visit students in Grade 6 and then again in Grade 8 or 9 — will be going to all students from grades 6 to 12 this year to make sure they can offer the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as all of the other school-based immunizations children may have missed out on due to remote learning.

Read more: Manitoba childhood primary vaccinations declined up to 30% during COVID-19 pandemic

“We want to make sure kids are caught up on their meningitis, on their tetanus, on their whooping cough … we don’t want to see a meningitis outbreak while we’re dealing with everything else.

“We know these childhood immunizations are critical to keeping our kids healthy. There’s a reason we don’t have measles, we don’t have mumps, we don’t have polio in our communities … with all the attention that’s gone to COVID, there have been challenges to getting those routine immunizations in.”

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