Covid-19: Fears school vaccine mandate could ‘split’ small community

Lake Rotoiti School has always been the central point of the tight-knit community of St Arnaud, on the edge of Nelson Lakes national park, school board chair Alistair Nicholls said.

So having to tell some unvaccinated community members they couldn’t go into the school any more, was “hard to swallow”.

Conflicting advice over how the school was expected to enforce a Covid-19 public health order for the sector from next week was adding to the stress, he said.

“This is the most difficult, unorganised shemozzle I’ve seen in 20 years plus of being a board chair,” said Nichols – who emphasised he was speaking as an individual, not for the board.

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Cambridge Primary School principal Mike Pettit says schools need more detail on the mandated vaccination order.

Under the Government’s vaccine mandate for the education sector, school staff have until Monday to have their first Pfizer jab.

It was up to school boards, as their employers, to decide how to manage non-compliant staff after that.

HEIKE Nelson Principals’ Association said staff who were unvaccinated on Tuesday November 16, and unable to work from home, would be put on leave until they were either vaccinated or their employment was terminated.

Nicholls said questions remained about which people, other than teachers and support staff, the mandate applied to, and what schools should do if people who were not allowed to, still came to school.

Organisations including the Ministry of Education, the NZEI teachers’ union and principals’ support groups, were interpreting and applying the public health order in different ways, Nicholls said.

“We are reasonably confident that little old granny who hasn’t proved that she’s vaccinated, who used to come in and read library books to the children or assist with a writing programme … [is] not allowed to any longer be in the school grounds.

“[But] we’ve had conflicting advice about whether parents are allowed to be on the school grounds unless they prove that they are fully vaccinated.

“Prize giving; potentially that’s not allowed to go ahead unless there’s proof that everybody’s been vaccinated.

“There’s so many unknowns.”

“Probably most strange”, was that everyone in the small township would still be able to mingle at their regular community events, outside of school time, he said.

“But that same group of [unvaccinated] people are not allowed to be on the school grounds any more.

“How can that not be divisive?”

Nicholls wouldn’t say if the school’s two fulltime and one part-time teacher were expected to meet Monday’s deadline.

“I have been involved with the school my entire life, and I’m being asked to do something that potentially … is going to split this community,” said Nichols.

“I’m not considering stepping down, but it is a real possibility. This has been a particularly unpleasant situation.”

The Ministry of Education said everyone who works for a school or kura who may have contact with children or students, or will be present at a time when children and students are also present, must have had a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by November 15 and be fully vaccinated by January 1, 2022.

Hautū (leader) education workforce, Anna Welanyk said boards’ options on how to manage staff who didn’t meet the requirements depended “on the school’s situation” and the employee’s employment agreement.

Vaccination was the most effective way to keep communities safe and protect children under 12 who could not yet be vaccinated, she said.

“Many organisations – including the Ministry of Health, health providers, unions, principals’ groups and the Ministry of Education – are working together to support school leaders to have informed conversations with their staff about the benefits of getting vaccinated.”

The New Zealand School Trustees Association (NZSTA) said it was there to help take boards through the compliance steps.

President Lorraine Kerr said boards were crown entities, and had to comply with the vaccine mandate “whether they agreed [with it] or not”.

Even if board members felt strange enforcing the public health order, the rules were there in order for everyone to stay safe, she said.

“It’s not just a school issue.

“We’re in a strange time now anyway. Nothing is business as usual, for anyone.”

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