With the fourth wave of COVID-19 brewing across Canada, some provinces are rethinking the usual practice of allowing polling stations to be set up in schools on Election Day.
Manitoba has announced that they do not wish to have polling stations on school property this federal election.
“Allowing unimpeded access to our schools as students return this fall remains a concern,” a provincial spokesperson wrote in a statement. “Right now, we do not support polling stations to occur in schools as they could interfere with the safety of students and school staff.”
And they’re not the only ones.
New Brunswick is also saying no to polls on school grounds. The province’s education ministry spokesperson said the decision is based on concerns about the “health and safety of students, particularly those under 12 who are unable to be vaccinated at this time.”
Newfoundland and Labrador told Global News that schools aren’t used as polling stations except in “extenuating circumstances” where no other suitable locations are available, but this policy was put in place long before the pandemic.
Alberta said that it was up to school authorities to determine how to use school property, as long as local health guidelines are followed. B.C.’s ministry of education said that it is consulting with public health officials on the issue.
Other provinces have yet to make an announcement on their decision to allow polling stations in schools for this upcoming federal election.
Officially, only Manitoba has requested to not use schools during the 2021 federal election, according to Elections Canada, and they are still in talks on the issue.
Ultimately, the agency said, it’s up to provinces to decide.
At the heart of the debate is whether allowing the public into a school on Election Day poses additional risks for anyone in the building.
“I know that safety is always going to be our first priority of the staff and the students who are working within those buildings,” said Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. “And so if they’re going to use schools, then the government needs to ensure that protocols are in place that are going to keep people safe.”
In a briefing Wednesday, Elections Canada outlined the various safety measures that will be taken at poll stations, including requiring staff and voters to wear masks, having hand sanitizer available, and having fewer poll workers in the room. In some cases, due to needing rooms big enough to socially distance in, polling stations might have to be moved from their usual locations, the agency said.
Some public health experts aren’t sure that polls inside schools are a good idea at this point in the pandemic though.
“You don’t really want a whole bunch of people going to schools when they’re just starting out at schools and some schools will not be vaccinated. That seems to be risky,” said Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Toronto.
She said she would feel better about using a different space as a polling station, or at least, doing voting in a gymnasium or another part of the school where students and voters could be completely separated.
While Dr. Tali Bogler, chair of family medicine and obstetrics at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, also thinks that keeping students and voters separated is a good idea, she’s not terribly concerned about the additional risk posed by a polling station.
“I can speak for Ontario, given that we’re in stage three and we allow indoor spaces for people to congregate in and they’re open, I think as long as the polling stations and the organization of the polling stations are following public health precautions, I don’t see why they can’t be done in school,” she said.
“Given the situation right now, I’m more worried about using schools as schools,” said epidemiologist Caroline Coljin, of Simon Fraser University, in an email. “A single day of elections handled competently with prevention measures like masks and good ventilation, wouldn’t add much of an issue in comparison.”
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