MANDEVILLE, Manchester — Even as three leading schools here mobilised students for a COVID-19 vaccination blitz hosted by the Jamaica National (JN) Foundation yesterday, one principal complained about the undermining effect of vaccine hesitancy on the effort as parents and youngsters take differing sides on the issue.
“There is vaccine hesitancy not only among the staff members, but also amongst the parents,” principal of Belair High School Lawrence Rowe told the Jamaica Observer during the vaccination blitz at Bishop Gibson High School for Girls.
“You have the unique situation of students wanting to become vaccinated, but their parents are hesitant to give the permission, so that's a challenge that we face at Belair,” he explained.
“I have had my students reach out to me seeking assistance to become vaccinated, but their parents are not giving the permission and, based on the law, they have to give permission for those students below the age of 18,” Rowe added.
At the same time, Rowe said 58 per cent of 60 staff members have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and that he is encouraging others to take the jab.
“[There] is subtle coercion based on what is happening in the general public and the requests from the Ministry of Education that we need to have 65 per cent of our students and staff vaccinated,” he said.
The Observer has learnt that there is growing disquiet as schools work towards a return to their plants for classes. The conversation has spilled over into at least two WhatsApp groups with parents. The exchanges range from modest to impassioned disagreement.
For one Corporate Area school a parent wrote, “We can't control their decision for everything. They want to go back to school. I want them to go back to school. They are wiser than we think. If they want the vaccine to go back to school let them take it. If you don't want it so be it. It's their future too.”
A parent retorted, “If it's not good for me it's not good for my child and I don't want it!!!!”
In yet another WhatsApp group, one upset parent said, “She want it [the vaccine], but a me run my house,” indicating unwillingness to permit her fourth-form daughter to becoming COVID-19-vaccinated.
The debate on vaccine hesitancy continues to affect the Government's national vaccination campaign. Though it has attained its one million dose target, the Ministry of Health and Wellness has had tens of thousands of doses expire before take-up.
Speaking with the Observer, one Kingston Central family, who wished not to be named, shared their situation.
“My two teenagers don't agree with the vaccine thing,” advised the mother. “My daughter go. I go. But my son not really interested. At first I told them that none of us going and we missed the first round.”
The mother, indicating that her fear led her to being against the vaccine, explained that her 16-year-old daughter convinced her to change her mind, as she kept pushing to be vaccinated, “and wouldn't take no for an answer”.
Asked why she worked so hard to get vaccinated, the all-girls' school fifth former said: “I went and did my research and saw that it [the vaccine] does more good than harm. I know it wouldn't stop me from catching the virus, but I also know it might save me from dying.”
The mother admitted that her daughter would forward YouTube videos to her with information on the vaccine and this helped to change her mind to allow her to being vaccinated.
Said the 14-year-old boy, however, “I still thinking,” not offering more explanation.
The Government has been offering the Pfizer brand of the COVID-19 vaccines to youngsters 12 to 18 years, and had initially prioritised for the estimated 214,000 children in secondary schools. However, the take-up has not been as active as anticipated.
Leaders of Belair High, deCarteret College and Bishop Gibson High for Girls (all located in close proximity) were yesterday pleased with the turnout and the increased COVID-19 vaccine interest among their students.
The school administrators — Rowe, principal at Belair High; Prim Lewis, principal at deCarteret College (DC); and Donna Legister-Hendricks, principal at Bishop Gibson High School for Girls — said they were eager to reach the 65 per cent vaccination threshold as guided by the Government for the full resumption of face-to-face classes.
They are hoping for that to happen for the start of the January term.
Rowe said 38 per cent of the 800 students enrolled at the Belair have so far been vaccinated. “The list is growing,” he said. “I find that most of the students, once we say face-to-face, will make an effort to come out to school,” he added.
DeCarteret's Lewis said the institution's objective is to increase the vaccination among students for the resumption of in-person instruction.
“Many of our students are languishing in terms of academics [and] social capital, so we really want to achieve the 65 per cent that is required by the Ministry of Education for us to get back face-to-face,” she said.
She commended the JN Foundation, JN Mandeville Circle and the Southern Regional Health Authority for the partnership in hosting the vaccination blitz.
She said the partnership would assist in increasing the number of students vaccinated among deCarteret's population of 1,142.
“Many [students] have indicated to the school that they have been vaccinated, because what we have asked as a school is that as soon as they would have reached full vaccination status that they submit a copy of the card to the school,” she said.
“Those have been coming in, not at the rate that we would like, but they have been coming in nonetheless,” she added. “We are imploring our students to take these opportunities to be vaccinated, so that everybody can benefit. We know that it is a challenge.”
And Legister-Hendricks said only 18 per cent of the 1,099 students enrolled at Bishop Gibson have been vaccinated.
“[This] initiative is to get others on board, so that this number can be increased exponentially… Our ultimate aim is to ensure that we have the majority of our students resuming face-to-face classes,” she said.
— Kasey Williams