Some schools and holiday programmes are asking staff whether they are vaccinated – but the privacy law limits their ability to tell parents whether their children can be kept safe.
In the Bay of Plenty, environmental manager Pim de Monchy and his partner Catherine are both vaccinated, as are their three older sons. But their youngest, a pupil at Welcome Bay School, is only 11 years old – too young to receive the Pfizer vaccine.
They are among parents who want assurance that their children will not be exposed to unvaccinated staff at school and at holiday programmes. “I value personal freedom highly, but I see getting a Covid-19 vaccination as a civic duty,” de Monchy says.
“I’d love to be able to say to staff, you must get vaccinated. I would like it if the Government provided us that mandate.”
– Steven Hargreaves, Maclean College principal
However, even when working with vulnerable children, employers say they are not able to mandate vaccination, or even disclosure. SKids, one of the country’s biggest school holiday programme chains, is asking its staff whether they are vaccinated against Covid. So too is Macleans College in east Auckland. But answering the question is voluntary, and their hands are tied in informing parents.
New laws in Victoria and New South Wales require that every authorised worker, including teachers and childcare staff, have had at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine if they want to continue attending their workplace.
But in New Zealand, parents face disappointment as they seek assurance that their primary-aged children will not be exposed to unvaccinated staff at school holiday programmes and on their return to school.
De Monchy was one of several parents who told Newsroom they wanted an assurance staff would be vaccinated. “The weight of evidence showing that high vaccination rates reduce hospitalisations and deaths by a factor of 10, and slow the virus’ spread, means it should be considered a practical means of improving health and safety in the workplace,” de Monchy argued.
“That applies to congested workplaces more so than solitary ones, so airlines, events, schools, children’s holiday programmes and similar work environments can justify requiring staff and customers to be vaccinated if they don’t have a medical or age-related exemption. That applies so long as the risks involved with vaccination are negligible relative to the risks of unmitigated Covid-19 spread in the community.”
It comes as the Government imposes a requirement that anyone overseas citizen entering New Zealand be fully vaccinated, from next month. “Getting vaccinated is the most effective measure against the transmission of Covid-19, and the risk of serious illness or death,” Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said.
“In our primary and intermediate schools, where children can’t yet be vaccinated, that places an additional onus on our teachers and school staff to do absolutely everything they can to help keep Covid-19 out. Vaccination is a really important part of that.”
– Chris Hipkins, Education Minister
Education officials have discussed mandating vaccination for primary school staff but, at this stage, are relying on education and encouragement.
“Around the world, in the context of Delta, schools have become places of significant Covid-19 transmission,” Hipkins told Newsroom.
“In our primary and intermediate schools, where children can’t yet be vaccinated, that places an additional onus on our teachers and school staff to do absolutely everything they can to help keep Covid-19 out. Vaccination is a really important part of that. Teachers all have the opportunity to be vaccinated and are strongly encouraged to do so.”
Hipkins said vaccination had an even more significant role to play in secondary schools. “Staff and students alike at our secondary schools have the opportunity to get vaccinated now, and they are strongly encouraged to take up that opportunity,” he said.
“A more highly vaccinated school community will almost certainly lead to less need for other public health measures in schools in the future,” the minister said. “Higher rates of vaccination will mean less disruption to learning, and that’s yet another good reason for everyone to get vaccinated.”
Macleans College makes it clear that answering the question is voluntary, and the answers will be kept in a secure database – not even visible to principal Steven Hargreaves until it comes to the crunch and they face a critical situation like dealing with a positive case.
“I’ve got parents who are concerned, and staff aged 65-plus who are worried about returning to school,” said Hargreaves.
“I’d love to be able to say to staff, you must get vaccinated. I would like it if the Government provided us that mandate.”
“An employer may ask an employee about their vaccination status, but the person does not have to share that information with their employer if they do not wish to do so. If an employee discloses their vaccination status to their employer, that information must be kept private unless they agree it can be released.”
– Helen Hurst, Deputy Secretary of Education
SKids chief executive Sharleen McKinnon echoed the views of Hipkins and de Monchy on the importance of vaccination, and said the company was asking staff whether they were vaccinated as part of their return-to-work survey for the school holidays, starting Monday.
“SKids supports and advocates vaccinations for all our staff and will continue to do so,” she said. “We continue to support our teams to get vaccinated to reach the nationwide 90 percent vaccination goal.
“We have not put in place mandatory vaccination requirements for staff and franchisees, as we are not able to do so under Schedule 2 of the Public Health Order. If this or other Government orders change, then so will SKids’ procedures and requirements. We will remain compliant with these orders and advice at all times.
“As part of our staff risk assessment, all staff must complete a return-to-work survey and cannot work on site if any exposures of risk are presented.”
However, Kelly Club managing director Paul Jamieson said that national holiday care programme was not asking staff whether they were vaccinated. “We’re continuing to take the advice of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education who suggest that at this stage it’s a private matter and that you shouldn’t ask people their vaccination status. It’s a grey area, isn’t it?”
Jamieson is correct that the Ministry of Education says a person’s vaccination status is personal information. However, its Bulletin to providers goes on to say: “You can ask a staff member whether they have been vaccinated if you have legitimate reason to do so, but they do not have to disclose their vaccination status.”
One of the bigger holiday programme providers, YMCA Auckland, would not discuss its stance on staff being vaccinated. “YMCA will not be operating a school holiday programme under level 3 and we are awaiting government guidelines for what the next level looks like,” said chief executive Julian Baldey.
“Once we have this information we will then make a decision around our Level 2 operation in Auckland with careful consideration of the health and safety of all our tamariki, rangatahi and our employees.”
“We don’t have the choice yet to protect our under 12s by vaccination, and with holiday programmes we absolutely should be able to get reassurance that staff are vaccinated so we have the informed choice to send them or not.”
– Nicola Eccleton, Christchurch parent
At the Ministry of Education, deputy secretary Helen Hurst said the Government’s priority was to have as many eligible New Zealanders vaccinated as possible.
“It is the best way to keep all of our community safe. We are therefore encouraging schools to support their school community to make an informed decision about vaccinations, and support their staff to be vaccinated.”
She reiterated: “An employer may ask an employee about their vaccination status, but the person does not have to share that information with their employer if they do not wish to do so. If an employee discloses their vaccination status to their employer, that information must be kept private unless they agree it can be released.”
Schools are now on holiday, and will return in two weeks time – thought there remains an outstanding question over whether Auckland and Waikato schools will be back in Level 2 and allowed to reopen their gates, instead of teaching online.
Hurst acknowledged that some parents would be anxious about having their children physically at school. “However principals will take extra care to make sure all the latest advice from public health officials are put in place, as they have done before,” she said. “Where there are concerns schools will work with parents to develop a plan to manage their child’s safe return. We will support schools as they do that.
“Any student who is self-isolating, or who has been advised by health authorities to remain at home while they wait for their Covid-19 test results, must stay home. We will provide distance learning for those requiring to self-isolate, waiting for a test result or choosing to remain at home because they are at higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19.
“If parents or caregivers decide they don’t want their child attending school, they could consider alternative learning options, for example applying to home school.”
“While it’s reasonable to expect that staff have had their first shot … I think some tolerance is needed around staff being able to follow Ministry of Health advice around the timing of their second vaccine.”
– Bridget Catchpole, Auckland parent
Parents spoken to by Newsroom expressed mixed views on whether school staff and school holiday programme staff should be required to be vaccinated, or at least to disclose their vaccination status so their employers can minimise the risk to children.
Nicola Eccleton, an NGO manager from Christchurch, said parents needed the vaccination information to make an informed choice about holiday programmes.
“I think it’s important context that we don’t have the choice yet to protect our under 12s by vaccination, and with holiday programmes we absolutely should be able to get reassurance that staff are vaccinated so we have the informed choice to send them or not,” she said.
“School is probably a bit trickier but I really think those teachers have a duty of care and if not vaccinated should be wearing extra protective coverings.”
That solution is similar to one adopted by a medical company, reported by Newsroom last week, that requires unvaccinated staff to wear full PPE and to get a Covid test every day, in order to minimise the risk they pose to workmates.
“I’d prefer if all people who can be are vaccinated … I’m sure there are many teachers with health issues that mean they can’t get vaccinated, and I don’t have the right to that information. And those same teachers I’m sure have a vested interest in not having Covid running through their workplace.”
– Michelle Banicevich, Auckland parent
But Bridget Catchpole, a parent from Meadowbank in Auckland, said it might not yet be reasonable to expect all school holiday programme staff to have had both doses of the vaccine.
“While it’s reasonable to expect that staff have had their first shot, mass vaccination has only been available for Group 4 (everyone 12 and over) from September 1,” she said.
“Advice for maximum vaccine efficacy is to wait six weeks, and we’re only just within that timeframe for the first week of the hols. I think some tolerance is needed around staff being able to follow Ministry of Health advice around the timing of their second vaccine.”
Also in Auckland, Greenlane property manager Michelle Banicevich, a mother of two, said she wouldn’t expect proof of vaccination for holiday programmes, but she would prefer staff to be vaccinated. “I’d prefer if all people who can be are vaccinated.”
“If good protocols are followed, if staff are supported to isolate if they feel any need, then our children should be as safe as they can be,” she said. “The same with teachers. I’m sure there are many teachers with health issues that mean they can’t get vaccinated, and I don’t have the right to that information. And those same teachers I’m sure have a vested interest in not having Covid running through their workplace.”