As the Omicron variant of Covid-19 takes hold around the globe, several New Zealand health experts are warning the country has limited time before an outbreak hits the country and preparations need to be made.
Paediatrician Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, an Epidemiologist in the Department of Public Health, University of Otago Wellington, says schools should delay opening because children are in the least vaccinated age group.
Schools are set to reopen between January 31 and at the latest, February 8. Kvalsvig says although time in school is “so important” for children, her advice is to delay the start of term one in order to prepare for a possible onslaught of Omicron.
“Schools should delay until the preparations are ready, it’s not clear to me how long that might take – it may be only a few days but it’s important that schools are safe when children go back.”
She says the delay should be for children of all ages as she says they are the least vaccinated age group at the moment – “and schools have a mix of all age groups,” she says.
With Omicron on the horizon, she says more needs to be done because “if we wait until an outbreak, it will be too late.”
Kvalsvig's colleague, Epidemiologist, Professor Michael Baker told 1News delaying the start of the school year is an option if there are not large numbers of vaccinated children.
"Of course it’s a parent's choice but people are being nudged to be vaccinated so it will limit transmission," he says.
He says schools and health authorities need to work together collaboratively and maximise the time the country has with low case numbers.
"Every day we don’t have Omicron in the community is precious and we should use it for maximum planning.
"We only need to look at what’s happening overseas to see how services are impacted by this variant of the virus."
He says there needs to be momentum in order to prioritise vaccination for children ahead of the school year and suggests if numbers are low, "rather than starting school in that first week, we could use that week for children to get vaccinated".
"We can’t basically delay the start of the school year before kids are fully immune because that would take months," Baker says.
Covid-19 duty minister Grant Robertson told 1News at this stage, schools will reopen as planned.
"The Government is constantly reviewing and talking to officials and experts about the Covid-19 response, particularly in light of Omicron.
"Vaccination remains the best defence anyone has against getting sick from Covid-19," he said in a statement.
"From January 17 5-11-year-old's are able to be immunised against Covid-19 and we encourage parents to take their children to get protected.
"The Government has confidence that young people aged 12-15 are well protected against Covid-19 with 90 per cent of this group fully vaccinated against the virus."
Robertson says from January 1, all teachers and school staff who interact with children are required to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 "and this will provide good protection for our tamariki when they return to school".
"Teachers and school staff who had their second dose at least four months ago are eligible to get their booster vaccination now and are encouraged to do so."
Education sector keen but cautious
National President of the New Zealand Principals' Federation, Dr Cherie Taylor-Patel says principals across Aotearoa are very mindful of the risk the Omicron variant presents.
"There are 463,000 students who need to be vaccinated and right now, what is not known is how fast this can be done," she says.
"The Ministry of Health has planned the vaccination rollout, in consultation with Māori health providers, general practitioners, pharmacies and DHB teams, to have a range of options available for parents to choose, to get their children vaccinated.
"What the vaccination uptake will be in different regions and how long it will take to get 90 per cent plus of 5-11 year-old's vaccinated is hard to predict right now.
"One option we have is to delay the reopening of schools until February 8, to give our health officials time to get vaccination rates up.
"No one wants to see the return to school becoming a national super-spreader event," Taylor-Patel says.
Principal of Manurewa’s Rowendale School, Karl Vasau told 1News he disagrees with pausing the start of school, saying coming back to school is “safe”.
“Covid has already had a huge detrimental effect on our children’s outcomes and for their learning, so it’s important that we start the year with a bang, we start the year with normality and we get as many children coming back as possible,” he said.
“As a school, we are not afraid of Omicron at the moment because it’s not here.”
He said as long as border, isolation and quarantine measures “continue to do the good job they are doing” then New Zealand “won’t see it come”.
He said there is no reason to scare people “with what could happen”.
The Government has made it clear that children cannot be prevented from going to school or early childhood services based on 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," says Sean Teddy, Hautū (leader) Operations and Integration for the Ministry of Education.
"Schools and kura cannot require evidence of vaccination for children, students and their parents and caregivers if they are there to access education.
"School Leaders may request this information to help inform their decision making, if for example, a school or kura was considering offsite educational activities.
Schools and kura were provided with the advice about this in the November 29th bulletin.