Coronavirus: Union warns anti-vax teachers they shouldn't expect to keep their jobs if they're not willing to keep students safe

Secondary school teachers who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19 are being warned they shouldn't expect their union to fight for them to keep their job. 

The Government on Monday said all school and early childhood education staff and volunteers "that have contact with children and students" would have to get their first jab by November 15 and be fully vaccinated by the year's end. In the meantime, anyone not vaccinated will be tested weekly before they're allowed to go to work. 

"It's a common-sense decision," Principals' Federation president Perry Rush told Newshub. "We have to accept that teachers and students are in close contact with each other for six hours every day, and that situation warrants some pretty stringent expectations around safety. 

"I think it isn't a surprise the Government has mandated vaccinations - the devil really is in the detail though, and a lot of that detail is yet to come."

Human rights law academic Claire Breen of the University of Waikato said while the Bill of Rights gives Kiwis the right to refuse medical treatment, it's a right that can arguably be overridden for the greater good. 

"You can justify it if it's reasonable and necessary in a democratic society," Prof Breen told The AM Show. 

Nearly 30,000 people have signed an online petition against the vaccine mandate. Hundreds have joined an anti-vaccination Facebook page set up by the Freedoms & Rights Coalition - a group with close links to Destiny Church, counting patriarch Brian Tamaki amongst its founders - which was behind the recent anti-lockdown protests

"The most challenging question I think is... what occurs when a teacher might choose to remain unvaccinated after January 1?" said Rush. "There isn't, at this point, what occurs in this situation."

In workforces already affected by the COVID-19 Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order, employees who refuse to be vaccinated must be moved into low-risk roles off the front line. A Customs employee who was fired after refusing to accept another role challenged the order in court, but was unsuccessful

The Post Primary Teachers' Association, which represents secondary school teachers, said a survey of its Auckland members found 19 percent - one in five - are unsure about the mandate, even if as an organisation, they do. 

Auckland regional chair Paul Stevens told The AM Show they will fight for any teachers who don't want to be vaccinated to have a "fair and just process, which is followed", but they should just get the jab.

"Schools play a really important role in our communities and they are at risk of being places where the virus can spread, particularly with Delta and enclosed spaces… It's our responsibility as teachers to make sure that all of our students are safe, and anyone who comes into a school is safe."

Not every teacher against the mandate is against vaccination per se, Stevens said, they just don't think it should be a legal requirement. After lots of discussion amongst its members, Stevens said ultimately the PPTA came down in favour of the mandate. 

"What we came to is that we shouldn't necessarily be protecting someone's job if they're not willing to play the role that they need to be playing to ensure that all of their fellow colleagues and all of their students are safe. 

"There are a number of students in our system who are under 12 (such as in composite secondary and intermediate schools) who aren't able to get the vaccine ; there are other staff who might be immunocompromised and aren't able to get the vaccine. 

"Those of us who can get the vaccine, we need to make sure we get the jab to protect everyone." 

Paul Stevens.
Paul Stevens. Photo credit: The AM Show

The return to school for Auckland, Northland and Waikato was initially set down for October 18, even while in level 3, but this was pushed back a week on Monday with case numbers still rising. National Party MP Paul Goldsmith told Newshub the Government should have mandated vaccinations for school and early childhood education workforces much earlier. 

"It's really deepening inequities in our education system because we have no clear guidelines from central Government as to what schools should be doing in lockdown. Some schools are very active and others aren't - it's a real lottery… The Government doesn't seem to be able to think ahead and predict the things that they'll need to deal with. We were asking them about teachers' vaccination status weeks ago and they had no idea."

Some opposed to the mandate have said kids are much less at risk from COVID-19 - a common theme on the Freedoms & Rights Coalition's Facebook page. While that was the case last year, experts say Delta has changed that. 

"Infection patterns indicate that children and young people are more susceptible to the Delta variant of the COVID virus when compared with the original strain," said Dianne Sika-Paotonu, immunologist at the University of Otago. 

"Although more likely to have mild or asymptomatic disease, children can still catch the virus and become sick, they can still end up with long COVID-19, and for children and youth with underlying medical conditions, they are at higher risk of serious illness and hospitalisation." 

Nearly one-fifth of all people infected in the current outbreak are aged nine or younger - possibly a combination of being a population that's wholly unvaccinated, and more than half of cases being amongst Pasifika, who are younger on average than other ethnic groups. 

"We have an obligation to protect those who cannot protect themselves right now, and this includes our children, who still don’t yet have access to a vaccine that will keep them safe from COVID-19," said Dr Sika-Paotonu.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has only recently been approved for those aged 12-15. Pfizer has recently asked US authorities to approve it for kids aged five to 11, and is still looking into whether it's safe and effective for children under five.