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A collage of images from MGH and ETHP's school-based vaccine clinics.
Clockwise from top left, a child gets vaccinated against COVID-19; Brad Lucifora, Registered Nurse (RN) and School Outreach Lead at MGH; the exterior of Regent Heights Public School.

‘A safe space’ where kids are cared for: Why schools are a natural site for pop-up vaccine clinics in East Toronto

When Myrica Gration received an e-mail from her son’s principal that a pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinic would be held at his school, she felt a sense of relief.

“Having the vaccine clinic in the school that Keiran was familiar with worked well for our family,” Myrica says. “We are very comfortable in that space and there was also an element of social cohesion: Keiran really enjoyed seeing his friends at the clinic. He felt reassured by receiving the vaccine at the same time as his peers.”

On May 21, Myrica’s 13-year-old son, Keiran, received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at his school, D.A. Morrison Middle School.

Keiran is one of thousands of people who have received their COVID-19 vaccine at one of more than 145 school-based pop-up clinics in East Toronto since May. The clinics are operated by East Toronto Health Partners (ETHP), the Ontario Health Team (OHT) that Michael Garron Hospital (MGH) is part of.

MGH’s vaccine team and school outreach team work together to run the clinics. They are supported by local community agencies and ambassadors who help spread the word by sharing clinic information and flyers created by MGH and ETHP.

Community ambassadors also answer questions from local residents to promote vaccine confidence.

Schools make sense as sites for vaccine clinics

Brad Lucifora
Brad Lucifora, a Registered Nurse (RN) and School Outreach Lead at MGH.

Brad Lucifora, Registered Nurse (RN) and School Outreach Lead at MGH, says schools are a natural site for pop-up vaccine clinics because they are “hubs” in their communities that many families already trust and are familiar with.

In addition, many families can get to their local school by foot. This removes barriers related to a lack of time or transportation that may prevent some people from getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

“You don’t have to drive; you don’t have to take the bus,” Brad says. “This makes the vaccine as accessible as possible, especially for families that may be facing other challenges.”

When schools were closed to in-person learning during the summer, pop-up vaccine clinics took place in the afternoon. Now that students have returned to classrooms, the clinics happen immediately after school and into the early evening so families have the chance to get the vaccine alongside their kids when they pick them up.

In addition, MGH and ETHP’s pop-up clinics have taken place at more than 50 schools in East Toronto, which means the clinic team has returned to some schools multiple times. This means families have more than one opportunity to get the vaccine at their local school.

This is especially helpful for individuals who, at first, may have been undecided on or hesitant about the vaccine. “The more convenient we can make it for everybody, the better,” Brad says.

Catering to special needs of students and families

The existing infrastructure at local schools also allows the clinic team to create “individualized” experiences for children, youth and families who are getting the vaccine.

At these clinics, staff lay gym mats on the ground where kids can sit or lie down to relax before, during or after their vaccination. Some clinics include private areas in a school’s gym or cafeteria where individuals who need more time or support can get their vaccine.

In June, the MGH vaccine and school outreach teams also held a clinic at William J. McCordic School, a special-education school for students with developmental disabilities.

There, healthcare workers were able to work with William J. McCordic staff. Together, they took as much time as needed to accommodate the unique needs of each child.

The clinic also included a drive-through option where families could be vaccinated together in their car.

“We spent 20, 30 minutes with some children, making sure they were as comfortable with the process as possible even before we brought out the actual vaccine,” Brad says. “There were some families that were happy to the point of tears. You could tell they were so appreciative that we were taking the time to do this.”

Clinics build on MGH’s existing relationships with schools

Regent Heights Public School
Regent Heights Public School is one of more than 50 schools in East Toronto that MGH and ETHP have partnered with to operate a pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

As part of MGH’s school outreach team, Brad has been reaching out to local principals since May, when youth aged 12 to 17 became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, to organize pop-up vaccine clinics at their schools.

MGH has been working closely with schools in East Toronto since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to offer infection prevention and control (IPAC) supports and to assist with testing.

These existing relationships mean many local principals are familiar with MGH. Many are enthusiastic about the idea of hosting a pop-up vaccine clinic at their school, Brad says.

This includes Brandy Squirrell, Principal at Regent Heights Public School. Since May, Regent Heights has hosted four pop-up vaccine clinics in its gym.

Leading up to the clinic, Brandy and her staff shared information and reminders about the clinics with their students, families and community. They also ensured the information was available in languages that their student body speaks.

Brandy says she’s thankful for the opportunity to host the clinics in a “safe space where families know their kids are being cared for.”

“I’ve been really impressed with Michael Garron Hospital and their ability to pivot where needed during the pandemic to make these supports so easily available,” Brandy says. “Hosting the clinics has been a really seamless experience.”

Principals, teachers and school staff play key role in outreach

At Oakridge Junior Public School, Principal Rohan Robinson has gone as far as flyering local buildings himself to ensure the local community is aware of the pop-up clinics happening at the school.

The school has collaborated with MGH and ETHP to host three vaccine clinics since May. 

“Schools were closed when we first started hosting these clinics and I really wanted to be back in there. I wanted to see the kids in-person and talk to them. I wanted them to be able to see each other,” Rohan says.

“So getting those flyers up was me doing my part to make sure the clinics were as successful as possible. Vaccines work and I really believe they are vital in helping us end the pandemic so we can go back to learning and seeing each other in-person and doing all the other things we love.”

Schools continue to be priority as vaccine eligibility expands

As the city prepares for vaccines to be approved and available for children aged 5 to 11, MGH and ETHP will continue to run school-based vaccine clinics in East Toronto to ensure local families can easily and conveniently get the COVID-19 vaccine.

This strategy is being carried out alongside MGH’s COVID-19 school supports, which helps local schools, child care centres and families in East Toronto detect positive cases of COVID-19 and prevent and limit the spread as quickly as possible.

“We’ve seen the benefits of working with our local schools and communities during the vaccine rollout and we’ll continue to collaborate with them to make sure children, youth and families are protected against COVID-19,” Brad says.

Myrica’s 11-year old son, Mason, is yet to be vaccinated against COVID-19. She says she’s looking forward to bringing him to a local school-based clinic when COVID-19 vaccines are approved for his age group so, like Keiran, he can be vaccinated in a familiar place that’s close to home.

Myrica hopes other families in East Toronto, particularly those with children between 5 and 11, will take the opportunity to visit MGH and ETHP’s pop-up clinics so they can experience the same relief her family felt when Kieran was finally able to be vaccinated.

“It felt like a huge moment of celebration for us as a family,” she says.

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