The Ministry of Education along with the Principal’s Federation say unvaccinated children cannot be banned from attending school next year, even if they are eligible to receive a Covid-19 vaccine.
While uncertainty may have been a theme in 2021 due to the Covid pandemic, there are hopes 2022 will be more settled under the traffic light system, which according to Jacinda Ardern is designed to “last the distance”.
It comes as an Education Review Office report has found the pandemic is taking an increasingly heavy toll on school teachers and children after two years of acute and sometimes lengthy lockdowns.
No vaccine mandates for schools or kura
The Ministry of Education says children can't be turned away from school over their vaccination status.
"Every child is entitled to an education in New Zealand, and that shouldn’t be denied based on their vaccination status or the choice of their parents. At no time has there been a requirement for students to provide information about their vaccination status," a Ministry of Education spokesperson told 1News.
"Hence, all children can and should attend school or kura and do not have to provide information about whether or not they are vaccinated."
The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet's (DPMC) Covid-19 Group told 1News that "school students are not required to be vaccinated in order to access their education," and that the Government is not currently considering any changes to this setting.
The COVID-19 Public Health Response (Protection Framework) Order 2021 makes it clear that a person in control of designated education and care premises—
must not deny entry, on vaccination grounds, to the following people if they are seeking to access education services at the premises:
a child or student enrolled at those premises; and
a parent or caregiver of that child or student unless they are a volunteer or worker at the premises.
School and early learning staff and support people who have contact with children and students need to be vaccinated by the start of next year.
The New Zealand Principal's Federation (NZPF) says "to deny them [children] the freedom to come to school is a human rights issue".
"For a board to consider not having some students at school would be a very difficult legal decision to defend. I don’t think you could defend it," vice president of NZPF Dr Cherie Taylor-Patel told 1News.
"Already you have some 5-11 year-olds who are pretty anxious about things in their world and they don’t need negative hysteria or a public debate over this," she says.
The Education and Training Act 2020 states that "all students have the right to attend school full time".
Both the Ministry of Education and NZPF said individual schools could not issue mandates that ban unvaccinated children from attending school in 2022.
"I don’t believe for a minute unvaccinated children will be locked out of the gate," Taylor-Patel says adding "we are hoping most parents will vaccinate their children".
"I think it will be more of a case of parents not wanting to send their kids to school because the risks of catching Covid are too high."
It comes as November data from the Ministry of Education shows home education applications have increased in recent months compared to previous years.
At the end of October 31 2021, there were 8253 children home-educated nationally.
Over 500 applications to home school had been made in October this year, compared to less than 200 applications in October 2019 and 2021.
Taylor-Patel says she’s confident there will be a number of “layers of protection” in schools which will mitigate any spread of Covid.
She says social distancing, mask-wearing, use of rapid antigen tests, taking a child's temperature and adequate ventilation will all contribute to a new normal at school.
"If these different viruses are going to keep coming and they are going to become part of our world we have to have solutions to cater to that."
No plans to introduce mandatory surveillance testing, MoH says.
A range of public health measures have been established to help ensure tamariki are well protected from Covid-19 at school, the Ministry of Health says.
"Vaccination continues to be New Zealand’s best defence against Covid-19, and vaccination of those currently eligible will help to both protect children and help to further lower the risk of transmission in schools," a ministry spokesperson told 1News.
"There are requirements for mask wearing, such as for staff, visitors and students in year 4 and above in areas in Red. Where not required, mask wearing is encouraged, especially in higher density settings where there is an increased risk of transmission, such as school assemblies.
"We also continue to encourage good hygiene practices and urge parents to keep children home from school and to be tested if they have any symptoms that could be Covid-19.
"At this stage, there are no plans to introduce mandatory surveillance testing for school students in 2022. However, we will continue to closely monitor cases in schools and as with all aspects of our Covid-19 response, we will make improvements as necessary based on any information and evidence.
"The current ventilation advice for schools is to open windows doors and vents to support the flow of fresh air.
"Widespread transmission hasn’t been recorded in schools in countries with high per capita cases of Covid-19, and schools are not understood to be high risk exposure settings," the spokesperson says.
Trends in Australia, the US, and the UK show transmission between children within education settings is low, and that the primary spread of Covid-19 tends to be within households, primarily driven by unvaccinated adults.
About 2,500 CO2 monitors are expected to be rolled out to schools in Term 1 of next year, according the Ministry of Education's Property Delivery spokesperson, Sam Fowler.
"We expect these to be deployed to support schools to assess how well ventilated their classrooms are, and to help them adopt the right ventilation approaches," he says.
Vaccine rollout for 5 to 11-year olds likely to begin in January
Covid-19 vaccines will likely be available for children aged between five and 11 years old in New Zealand from late January, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced on December 1.
The latest Ministry Bulletin for School Leaders published on Tuesday says a decision on a rollout date is expected in mid-December.
"Pending the decision made by Medsafe, Cabinet may be in a position to consider vaccinations for children before Christmas.
"Health officials are therefore planning for a rollout starting early next year. Although timing has not been decided, it is expected it would begin before the end of January.
"Current plans are to use the existing health sector infrastructure such as GPs, pharmacies and vaccination clinics, as well as working with iwi, DHBs, local providers, communities and the Ministry of Education to ensure a whānau-based approach," the bulletin said.
Taylor-Patel says the Ministry of Education Advisory Group and representatives from the Ministry of Health discussed the rollout for 5-11 year-olds via Zoom on Tuesday.
"They were sorting a strategy where they could engage a range of providers to get equitable access so Māori are right up there at the front of the queue," she says.
“We want all students to be safe when they return to school in 2022 and we know that Māori and Pacific Island students are potentially more vulnerable to the impact of Covid, so we fully support them being prioritised.”