Coronavirus: Schools seeing impact of missing staff who are unvaccinated

Kaiapoi High School in Canterbury celebrated its prize-giving for leavers on Tuesday but some of their teachers weren't there to cheer them on.

"They probably just assume the teacher's not there for today [Tuesday]," says the school's principal Bruce Kearney. "It'll be over a period of time before they start realising."

From Tuesday, unvaccinated staff are banned from setting foot on school grounds, nationwide.

Not just teachers - teacher aides, volunteers, support staff and even cleaners.

"We're dealing with people, and emotions, and we're normally, you know, we normally focus on the fact we try and encourage and empower people so it's been really hard for us," Kearney says.

Kearney says a very small number of his staff had chosen not to get the vaccine. 

"The hardest part of it at the moment is we haven't been able to say goodbye if that ends up being the case," he says.

The New Zealand Principals' Federation says principals are just trying to do the right thing.

"We're very small communities, and communities that place a high premium on human values,"  says president Perry Rush.

"So the job that principals have had to work with teachers that are not compliant has been really taxing."

He says rural schools in particular will be hardest hit.

"We are seeing a much more challenge with rural and remote communities, simply because there is no reliever pool," Rush says. 

Auckland and Waikato principals have had to balance the challenge of managing unvaccinated staff, with preparing to welcome back all school and kura students from years 1 to 10 from Wednesday.

"Absolutely, it's been the toughest week in my four years as a principal," says Papakura High School principal Simon Craggs.

Seven percent of staff at Papakura High School have not returned on Tuesday.

"We've had to say to some really good people you can't come into school for the next few weeks," Craggs says.

"That's not easy. It's not easy for the students, for the rest of the staff, for the staff involved in particular, and for our community as a whole."

He told vaccinated staff their former colleagues are still valued, despite their differences, and the door has been left open should they change their minds.

"Those staff members who have chosen not to take the vaccine are still the same staff members who they sat next to in the staff room three months ago, had great conversations with, were friends with," Cragg says. 

The Ministry of Education doesn't hold vaccine information so was unable to say how many teachers were unvaccinated.

But the Principals' Federation says its surveys indicate that 97 percent of school staff, and 99 percent of teachers are vaccinated, meaning around 600-700 teachers were unable to return to work.

"Principals will continue to work with those teachers, continue to support them and provide information," Rush says.

"Our hope is we will get as many of our workforce vaccinated as possible."

Teachers are mandated to get vaccinated because children under 12 can't receive the jab.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield says children tend not to get sick, but are a group that transmits COVID around the community, so a balance must be struck between risks and benefits.

The Director-General of Health is keeping an eye on studies in the US, where children aged five to 11 are getting the Pfizer vaccine.

"We can look carefully at what emerges in terms of safety profile in the US, so that's going to be really important in terms of informing our discussion," Dr Bloomfield says. 

Not every school will be reopening on Wednesday. Papakura High School expects to welcome back years 9 and 10 students on Friday, with a staggered reintroduction.

Manurewa High School - one of the country's largest - has told years 9 and 10 students they won't be returning for the rest of the year, and will finish out the year with online learning.

"We understand this decision will be disappointing for some students and whanau, but we hope you will understand that we are putting the Hauora and safety of our community first, as we always do," principal Pete Jones told students and parents in an email. 

The school has cited Auckland's rising case numbers, advice from health expert Dr Rawiri Jansen, and concerns from students, staff, and whanau in its decision.

Te Kura Akonga o Manurewa has taken every precaution as it prepares to re-open.

"I'm ready. I'm ready to go," says principal Irihapeti Matiaha.

"What we needed to ensure was that it sat around the values, and the culture of our kura. 

"There were quite a few things I had to eliminate from our normal day-to-day."

Whole-school assemblies, sport, and the morning karakia are off the table, and the staff room is off-limits.

While only a small number of students are returning on Wednesday, Matiaha has one thing that gives her more confidence than many principals. 100 percent of her staff are fully vaccinated.

"I count myself lucky, but at the same time I know it wasn't an easy journey to go through, from four to five weeks ago," Matiaha says.

"She's been a big one but we got through it, and I always believe we would."

A journey that after 13 long weeks, is about to reach its biggest test yet.