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Teachers Union wonders: Should vaccines be mandatory in schools?

The preliminary agenda for the annual conference of the Teachers Union of Ireland has been released, and with it, a list of motions that the Union is set to debate when it gathers for that conference later this spring. Top of the agenda is motion 177, introduced by the Dublin branch of the TUI, which reads:

“Ireland together with many other countries around the world is currently in the grip of a pandemic which has overthrown many ways in which our society has functioned. Education has suffered with months of physical school closure and the related turn to emergency remote teaching. Teaching and learning in this time has suffered together with much emotional, psychological and spiritual distress in our school communities. It is necessary that society uses all of the medically approved tools available to enable a return to the rich presential, face-to-face, in the classroom teaching and learning environment that we prefer. To that end the uptake of a COVID-19 vaccine should be a requirement for entering and continuing physical attendance in a school. Congress instructs the Executive to negotiate with the DES that a recognised and required national document be instituted which evidences that a COVID-19 vaccine has been administered (other than for those with valid medical exemptions) following the rollout of the National COVID-19 Vaccination Plan.”

There are a few things to note here, so let’s go through them:

First, and most obviously, a motion at a teacher’s union conference is just that – a motion at a teachers union conference. It may or may not be adopted (more on that later), but even if it is adopted, the TUI conference sets policy only for the TUI, not for the nation, or for Irish schools. Assuming the motion were to be passed, mandatory covid vaccination would become the official policy of the TUI, not the Government.

Second, the TUI is the representative body, mainly, for secondary school teachers, and teachers in third level students. When they’re talking about vaccines here, they’re talking about them for older students and employees in such institutions. We’re not talking about vaccines for small children, here.

Third, such a policy is highly unlikely to be constitutional. There is, after all, a constitutional right to education, and that right is not conditional, in any way, shape, or form, on one’s personal health. A good analogy would be drug testing in schools: If the Government was to try to introduce, for example, mandatory blood tests for cocaine and cannabis in second level students, and attempt to exclude them from education if they refused to take one, that policy would very swiftly be thrown out by the courts on the basis that it does not form a legitimate reason to exclude somebody from sitting and studying for their junior or leaving certs. Mandatory vaccination would likely meet the same fate.

Fourth, even were the policy adopted, and even were it found to be constitutional, it would prove practically impossible to implement on civil grounds. Take for example a teacher who declines to be vaccinated, for whatever reason. If such a teacher were to be suspended, or dismissed, they would likely have a very solid unfair dismissal case on the basis that partaking in a particular medical treatment was never a part of their contract of employment, and that they have personal rights of conscience. The matter would swiftly find itself before the courts, and could go the whole way to the EU courts, if necessary.

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, the numbers of people in schools who decline to be vaccinated are likely to be absolutely tiny. The anti-vax movement in Ireland is already very small – the most recent polling suggests it is less than ten per cent of the population – and disproportionately older. It is highly likely that most schools will comfortably exceed 90% rates of vaccine take-up, which will reduce the urgency of this matter somewhat.

Will the motion pass at the TUI congress? Almost certainly. Teachers have been consistently concerned about safety in schools, to the point of resisting previous efforts by the Government to keep schools partially open during this most recent lockdown. But remember, when people vote, they rarely vote on the precise question before them: This motion, and support for it, will be a simple way for voters at TUI congress to emphasise that they want schools vaccinated, and quickly. It’s highly likely to draw votes from people who don’t really believe in compulsory vaccinations when they sit down and think about it, but want to send a message on the broader topic.

People who are determined not to be vaccinated will be very angry, of course. And to some extent, that’s not unreasonable: Compulsory vaccination, to the extent of denying people an education, would be a deeply illiberal and regressive measure.

But remember: It’s just a motion at the TUI conference. The time to worry about this stuff, if it’s something that concerns you, will be if it becomes a motion before the Dáil. And even then, it would probably require a referendum.

There won’t be a referendum on this. The bad news, though, if you’re in the deeply-opposed-to-this camp, is if there was such a referendum, the numbers suggest it would probably pass.

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