As the deadline for education workers to get the vaccine approaches, principals and teachers want clarity from the Government on what this will mean for the sector

Schools are set to be one of the crucial battlegrounds for vaccination.

With children under the age of 12 still unable to get the vaccine, the recently announced vaccination mandate for education workers is fast approaching – and with senior secondary school students returning to campus next week in Level 3 areas, the education sector wants answers sooner rather than later.

Teachers and other support staff who work on school grounds will need to get their first jab by November 15, and be fully vaccinated by New Year’s to keep working in their current capacity.

At least that’s the intention – but with the sector still waiting for the public health order to drop, many schools and teachers feel uncertain what the next few months will look like.

NZEI Te Riu Roa President Liam Rutherford said there was frustration around how long the public health order was taking to come out and give teachers and schools some certainty around what will be expected.

This leaves the education sector ill-equipped to deal with potential issues the mandate may cause, such as replacing staff members or finding alternative roles for them.

“We are really concerned around how this will affect staffing shortages,” said Rutherford. “We support the vaccination mandate, but finding teachers is already a problem.”

This is especially the case in early childhood education, where a shortage of staff was already a huge challenge even before the global pandemic.

“Covid-19 hasn’t created the staffing shortage for ECE,” said Rutherford. “That was caused by low wages and it being treated like a private industry. The pandemic exacerbated this and the vaccine mandate may compound it further.”

NZEI Te Riu Roa President Liam Rutherford said the union backs the science, but would like more information around the testing regime. Photo: Facebook

Despite these concerns, Rutherford said the overwhelming majority of the union’s members were supportive of the mandate.

“The bulk of educators weren’t surprised, as they knew vaccination was going to play a huge part in the public health response,” he said.

The union has also heard from a small group who oppose the mandate. Rutherford said they would support these educators in making sure they get a fair shake. “They’ll be weighing up whether to get it,” he said. “But we’ve been very clear to them that if they don’t, we will be alongside them to make sure they are treated fairly in the employment process.”

But Rutherford says the devil’s in the detail, and most of the detail is yet to be announced.

“We need more detail from the Government about the testing regime.

“For example, early childhood centres in Level 3 areas are already open. That means more than 15,000 early childhood educators will have to find the time to get tested during business hours by October 26th.

“We already have teacher and support staff shortages, particularly in early childhood centres. Testing will have to happen in school time, so will this be paid leave and how will their ratios get covered? Will educators be able to access priority testing? The Government needs to come to the table and answer these questions.”

An ambiguous public message doesn’t help matters, according to the New Zealand Principals’ Federation.

The source of the ambiguity is the question of whether a mandated yet unvaccinated worker will be fired or moved to another role. As the Government has moved towards vaccine mandates, Minister of Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins has selected his language carefully on this issue.

He suggested MIQ, port and border workers would be moved from public-facing roles until hard and fast rules came into play around their need to be vaccinated.

But with teachers and many other people who make their living on school grounds, this is a tall order.

Principals’ Federation president Perry Rush said it was important there was no confusion around the Government’s plan to make sure every education staff member was fully vaccinated.

“We must be clear that the intent of the Government’s decision is that every education staff member will be fully vaccinated,” he said.

Nevertheless, Hipkins’ comments around non-public facing roles as an alternative, even on a temporary basis, don’t necessarily work for schools.

“Minister Hipkins has stated that there may be some provision for alternative roles that are not front-facing but that any such roles would be very limited,” Rush said. “It is hard to see what legitimate alternatives exist that that would add value to the education of children who are best served by mostly face-to-face teaching and learning.”

When he announced the mandate on October 11, Hipkins said the end-of-year deadline should help schools to sort out staffing requirements before unvaccinated teachers are no longer allowed in front of the students.

But even with the two months of runway before this new status quo, there may still be staffing shortages for schools, with the Ministry of Education forecasting last month that the national roll would increase by 9000 next year. This increase would require an additional 262 teachers, according to the report.

“Most schools judge that they have limited staffing and funding to meet the vast array of needs in their student body. 

“So, there is little capacity to hold a staff member in a remote teaching position if that means that students on site need to be taught.”

And part of being a teacher is being on site, Rush said.

“Attending school on site enables staff to contribute to the corporate life of the school playground duty,” he said. “Bus duty, sports coaching, behaviour management, whole staff professional learning, swimming supervision, running assemblies, trips and visits – the list is extensive.”

Rush said the Principals’ Federation supported the mandate despite some of these details still being withheld.

“There are few working environments where adults are in such close contact with unvaccinated people (five to 11 years old) for extended periods. The safety of school staff and students is paramount,” he said. “A ‘no jab, no job’ policy is a brave decision for Government to take and underscores the threat posed by the Covid Delta strain to our front-line education workers and students.”

Last week, the Ministry of Education released a bulletin to schools detailing exactly who would need to get the jab.

It includes everyone working onsite, including teachers, relief teachers, administration staff, caretakers, cleaners, after-school carers and hostel staff. It will also apply to volunteers and parents who spend time on the school grounds.

Parents picking up or dropping off kids will not need to show proof of vaccination, but they will need to wear a mask and keep their social distance.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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