Education sector in chaos after COVID-19 vaccine mandate

The education sector is in chaos behind the scenes after COVID-19 vaccine mandates were announced with zero operational detail or guidance about what to do if teachers refuse. 

But on Wednesday there was a stark reminder about why compulsory teacher jabs have been introduced: an early childhood teacher has been infected with COVID-19 and six children are now close contacts.

"There is an adult who is a teacher at an Auckland early learning service centre that tested positive yesterday," Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield announced at the 1pm press conference. 

Six children - in two bubbles but being managed by the same teacher - are now deemed close contacts.

"The person has had one dose of the vaccine and their infectious period has been assessed as commencing on the 8th of October," Dr Bloomfield said. 

It comes after the sector rang alarm bells when the Government told Auckland centres to open last week.

"If it gets into a centre everybody's going to get it," Small Kauri Early Childhood Education Centre owner Linda Petrenko told Newshub at the time

She was echoed by Dr Mike Bedford, head of ECE Reform, who said early childhood centres could become the epicentres of outbreaks.

"To simply be forcing teachers to go into situations where they're unsafe, I don't think that's acceptable."

Education Minister Chris Hipkins denies it was an unnecessary risk allowing early learning centres to return.

"Almost anything at this point is a risk and we do have to weigh that up against the need to provide - in the case of Auckland - to alleviate some of the immediate pressure," Hipkins said. 

One ECE centre manager told Newshub on Wednesday: "Reopening for ECE was a huge mistake," and, "This is not quality of care because we cannot keep our tamariki as safe as we would like."

The Education Minister is adamant it was the right decision.

"We did put some extra requirements in place in order to try and keep the system and the children in the system as safe as possible, and you saw me further strengthen that standing here two days ago with the vaccine announcement."

But that announcement - mandating vaccines for teachers - has put the entire education sector in a tailspin.

Howick Primary School principal Leyette Callister says she has no idea what to tell teachers who'd rather quit than get the jab.

"They've just blurted it out like a big knee-jerk reaction," she told Newshub. "It completely reduces - or decimates - our trust in the Government because it doesn't feel like they've even thought through this at all."

Hipkins says they're working through the advice now.

"We're supporting remote learning, for example, and bear in mind there is actually more demand for remote learning, but we are talking about a limited range of options there."

That's because the vaccine mandate won't be designed with loopholes, despite some principals threatening to walk. 

"I've had expressed to me concern by principals about this policy, however of course I've also had many, many principals express support for this policy too," says Perry Rush, president of the New Zealand Principals' Federation.

A working group has been set up to work through the nuts and bolts of the mandate, including what happens to teachers who refuse to get vaccinated. 

But everyone is waiting for the public health order defining exactly who's covered. It's expected in the coming days - a few days too late for a sector already in chaos.