Wed, Nov 17, 2021 2:00 PM

Vaccine mandate: Job or jab

Victory Community Centre community coordinator Steve McLuckie. Photo: Kate Russell.

Kate Russell

Schools, early childhood centres and community services may look a little different this week as the full effect of the Government’s vaccine mandate comes to light.

The Covid-19 vaccine mandate came into effect for teachers and healthcare workers on Tuesday.

School and early childhood staff who have contact with children must of had their first vaccination as of Monday, and be fully vaccinated by the start of January.

Alistair Nicholl has been chair of the Lake Rotoiti School board for about 20 years - until this week.

He has resigned as he is unwilling to implement the mandate that if an unvaccinated member of staff or the community walks onto the school grounds, the board chairman would be expected to call the police.

For Alistair this has been an emotional decision.

“I couldn’t speak highly enough of the staff and it’s my biggest regret to leave them,” he says. “Some of them are under duress to be vaccinated or lose their job.”

He says individuals are not making these decisions lightly.

“It’s costing them their job and possibly their house,” he says. “That’s the reality of what they were asking me to implement.”

He says these people are not strangers but people who are friends he has known for many years.

Lake Rotoiti principal Mike Allen said on Tuesday that they had found staff to fill a gap for the day, but it was very difficult.

“For relief staff, that can be a three hour return drive and not many are willing to do that.”

Although finding staff was difficult logistically, the loss of people he had worked with was emotionally hard.

“These are wonderful people, and they are making a moral stand,” he says.

Nelson Principals’ Association president Symon Beattie says the vaccine mandate has created a challenging situation, but it is “business as usual” for schools this week.

He said most schools in the region had only a “small percentage” of staff who were hesitant about the vaccination, but a couple might lose more.

Unvaccinated staff won’t immediately lose their jobs but will have to go through a process and will no longer be able to be on site.

“If it is a non-teaching staff member there could be options for them to work off-site. For some, there may be an exemption.”

If the employees’ work cannot reasonably be rearranged, then they are put on leave, he adds. Employees in the education and sector need to be fully vaccinated by 1 January, 2022.

If there are no alternatives to termination, schools will give notice that employment will be terminated according to the conditions of the employment agreement.

Symon indicated that the region had plenty of standby staff if schools needed it.

“As a group of educators, we are hugely appreciative of all teaching staff.”

The mandate applies to early childhood services and all primary and secondary schools. It also includes anyone who works, volunteers, or does unpaid work in education and who will have contact with children or students.

Headmaster of Nelson College, Richard Dykes, said as of Monday they were in discussion with a small number of staff.

“This is a difficult and complex situation for everyone involved that’s come about due to the Government’s PHO [public health order]. There are a range of scenarios to work through, including some staff possibly seeking exemptions. Each case is unique. We’re endeavouring to work with staff to get the best outcomes for staff, students and whānau within the PHO requirements.”

Nayland College principal Daniel Wilson confirmed that the school was complying with the PHO regarding mandated vaccinations for staff.

“We do not foresee any issues with the smooth running of the school from Tuesday, 16 November.”

Nelson Tasman Kindergarten Association chief executive, Craig Vercoe, says they have been working with staff to help them meet their legal requirements.

“Sadly, a small number of staff have made the choice not to be vaccinated.  We respect their personal decision and have supported them during this challenging time.”

He said they had a small number of staff who were not at work on Tuesday.

“It’s a small number, the exact number is sensitive.”

He says it has been difficult because it is people’s livelihoods, but that the association has a responsibility to protect children.

The new rules have also affected the Victory Community Centre, which is located on school grounds.

They have confirmed they will be losing five volunteers who are choosing not to get vaccinated, and unless they can replace them by next week, they will be unable to run certain programmes for the community this summer.

They have lost three of the volunteers who help support the community access to the Nelson Intermediate School pool during the summer months.

It is a popular initiative with around 65 families signing up for a key last year.

“We need eight people for the pool, so unless we find some more helpers, we won’t be able to open it,” says the centre’s community coordinator Steve McLuckie.

Pool volunteers are responsible for putting the pool covers on at the end of each day, one or two days per week, as well as some water quality testing.

The pool usually opens to the community from mid-December until the beginning of March, but volunteers need to be trained.

Pool volunteers will receive a subsidised key. Contact steve@victory.school.nz to volunteer.

Wakefield School Principal Peter Verstappen says they had a very small number of staff who were affected by the mandate, but they had staff in place.

“Everyone is being sincere in working through the challenges in good faith,” he says. “It has been challenging at times, but I am fortunate that we have a staff and community who understand the complications.”

Waimea College Principal Scott Haines says all teachers at the college are vaccinated, while there are a few support staff that are waiting on exemptions.

He says significant time has been invested in gathering the vaccination status and evidence of all teaching staff, support staff and volunteers.

Another local principal said the mandate announced only a matter of two or three weeks ago has imposed a significant additional workload on principals and board members as they grapple with how it applies to employment.

Richmond School’s principal Tim Brenton was happy to comment on the school’s position regarding teachers needing to be vaccinated. He says his job was made very simple because 100 per cent of their 47 teachers had had at least one vaccine, and 45 had had both vaccinations.

“I’m absolutely delighted,” he says.

Some other schools in the region are the same position. Waimea Intermediate principal Justine McDonald says they have a ‘full deck’ and have kept all their staff.

Nelson College for Girls say 100 per cent of their staff are vaccinated and Hampden St School say they won't be losing any staff.

By Kate Russell and Jenny Nicholson.