COVID-19: Concerns vaccination rates among students, staff not high enough to warrant schools reopening

School's back for senior students, with Auckland's pupils returning to the classroom on Tuesday for the first time in 10 weeks - however, not all schools have decided to open their doors, and there are rising concerns that vaccination rates are not as high as they should be to warrant the shift. 

Earlier this month, the Government announced that all school teachers, early learning teachers, and support staff must be fully vaccinated before January 1, 2022, with secondary schools and kura also required to keep a register of vaccinated students. When the school bell rings for the first day of Term 1 in 2022, all staff at New Zealand's schools are required to be double-jabbed.

However, there are concerns about the level of vaccination among eligible students. As of Tuesday, October 26, all senior students in Years 11 to 13 - typically spanning ages 15 to 18 - in areas under alert level 3 restrictions are able to return to the classroom. However, the 12-to-19 demographic currently has the lowest rate of vaccination out of all age groups, with the 20-to-34-year-olds not much better off - and the education sector is worried the lack of protection could spell disaster for schools.

The latest data shows that per 1000 people, only 492 New Zealanders aged 12 to 19 are fully vaccinated - comparatively, 893 per 1000 people aged 65 and over are double-dosed. For first doses, 776 teenagers per every 1000 have received their first jab. 

Overall, 90 percent of eligible Aucklanders have received their first jab as of Monday, with 77 percent fully vaccinated. 

COVID-19: Concerns vaccination rates among students, staff not high enough to warrant schools reopening
Photo credit: Ministry of Health

Speaking to The AM Show on Tuesday morning, Melanie Webber, the president of the New Zealand Post Primary Teachers' Association (PPTA), said there are serious concerns about whether vaccination rates are high enough to warrant a return to the classroom.

A number of schools have already made it clear they will not be opening their doors on Tuesday, with Takapuna Grammar School's principal, Mary Nixon, emailing students' parents last Wednesday to say they would be continuing with remote learning until at least the end of next week, according to the New Zealand Herald, which viewed the correspondence.

In her email, Nixon said reopening on Tuesday was "not practical nor necessary" as an immediate option. She said the school already had a detailed plan in place that was working for students and practice exams would stay online, as they had already been carefully arranged by staff to suit students' requirements. It was "untenable" to have students sit their exams in-person at this stage, she wrote.

"We're really worried about the speed at which it's happening," Webber told The AM Show on Tuesday.

She claimed there has been conflicting advice from the Ministry of Education and the number of schools opting for different approaches to learning and exams - with some reopening, some maintaining remote learning, and some doing a combination of the two - was already confusing for staff and students. 

She says the PPTA would feel more comfortable inviting students to return to on-site learning if it was "absolutely necessary" for those pupils to do so.

"We're really worried those vaccination rates aren't where we're being told they need to be."

Staff have also been left in the dark about the current levels of vaccination among students and teachers, Webber says. She claims the workforce has not been given a detailed breakdown of the vaccination rates among students and staff to inform their decisions about whether reopening is tenable at this stage. 

Although she said she is confident most teachers will be getting their jabs, there are concerns around uptake among students and younger staffers. 

"We'd like to have a clear idea of what the level of vaccination was among students and teachers before we went in. It's a concern that we don't [have it], it's data that we could get - and it's something that would make us feel safer. We accept schools probably do need to go back sooner, but it's worrying the speed at which it's happening."

There are also concerns about the impact the return to school will have on students who are not yet fully vaccinated. Webber says while the transition will be relieving to some, it may also be "hugely upsetting" for others who are concerned about the risk of transmission, or are worried about passing the virus to their families at home.

"We're worried about the students. We're worried about the students that are being told they need to come back to school, but the students themselves know they're not fully vaccinated yet. They're really worried about what that means for their family, who are at home," she said. 

"When we talk about keeping kids safe in schools, it's about those layers of levels - masks, physical distancing. But what's a really key piece that we're being told by the Government [will] keep us safe, the vaccination rates, aren't there - particularly for young people and also our younger teachers."

She added that the speed of the transition means the education sector can't yet be convinced that all schools have clear health and safety plans and protocols in place. 

"Just as I am very reluctant to give health advice because that's not my area of speciality, equally Health doesn't know what goes on in schools… I can tell you that within schools, it's very difficult to maintain social distancing… that's a real worry.

"Some [students] are relieved to return, "equally there are students who are hugely upset and panicked that they are now being required to come in."

Newshub has contacted the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education for comment.