Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Bay of Plenty rural school principal, four staff risk jobs over jab mandate

A small country school is set to lose its principal, a teacher and three other staff members when the education vaccination mandate kicks in this month.

Those interviewed say they will not get the Covid-19 vaccine, even if it means losing their jobs.

The mandate requires anyone who is in contact with children in an educational setting to have had their first vaccination dose by November 15 and be fully vaccinated by January 1.

That means from November 16, the five staff will not be allowed on the grounds of rural Rangiuru School, east of Tauranga, while children are present. Three teachers will remain at the full primary school, which has 85 students.

A school parent has described the loss of five staff as “pretty devastating for this small school”.

Principal Mike Gullick said he had “a big problem” with the mandate forcing people to either get the vaccine or lose their livelihoods, but felt “powerless”.

“I hate being in the position where I have to do this to my community but it’s the only choice left and the other choice is something I’m not willing to do.

“It’s hard – it puts pressure and strain on the whole system.

“Everyone is on the edge of tears all the time.

“The other staff that are left behind – they’re not sleeping that well because they’ve got to face up to this too and it affects them heavily.

“The thing I hate about this the most is the impact it has on both the staff that remain and the community outside of my own concerns.”

Gullick said the school would remain open after November 15 and he did not want it to suffer.

Working from home until the end of the year could be an option to help ease the impact on the school and on day-to-day operations, he said.

“I think everyone’s realistic that they certainly won’t have a job next year – it’s not a sustainable move. But we all care a lot about this school and we don’t hold the school or community responsible for what’s happened here.”

Gullick said the school had been “flat-out” trying to plan how to make it through to the end of the year and he would “certainly” help the school however he could.

He said the affected staff members were waiting for further guidance about whether they would be on leave with or without pay and vaccinated relief teachers would be on-site to help with the situation.

Gullick said it was a “gutting” decision to risk leaving a school he has been at for 13 years.

“My plan, only a month ago, was to stay here for another 13 years because I’ve got a 9-month-old baby that I wanted to stay here until she finished Year 8,” he said.

“It’s pretty devastating to just have that carpet ripped out underneath in such a short timeframe.”

Gullick said “a big part” of why he was against the mandate was because he was “a bit worried” about a mandate for children, as he did not want his kids to get the vaccine.

“If you don’t push back, well then they can just do anything.

“I’m not too worried about this – and maybe I’ll be totally wrong. But that will be my fault and my responsibility.

“I don’t buy into this whole ‘protect everyone else’,” he said.

“I’ve got no problem with the choice anyone else is making, but let me make mine.”

The Ministry of Health has said it has clinical and technical experts paying “close attention” to the international evidence on vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds. Medsafe expects an application from Pfizer for that age group this month. People aged 12 and older are already able to get the vaccine.

Rangiuru School caretaker Kent Taylor had accepted the possibility he may lose his job because of his choice not to get vaccinated.

He was “hugely against” the mandate, calling it “disgusting”.

Teacher Grace Daniels had also accepted she may lose her job and was “definitely disappointed”.

“I don’t think you should ever tell somebody what they can do with their body … “

“I don’t feel like it’s a choice – I don’t feel like I’m choosing to leave my job. I feel like I’m being forced into leaving my job.”

Office administrator Michelle Arnold had also accepted this possibility.

“It blows my mind really that somebody has to choose between their health and their income – it shouldn’t be a choice.”

The fifth staff member impacted by the mandate was not available for comment when the Bay of Plenty Times visited the school.

A parent of a pupil at Rangiuru School received a letter from the school on November 3 informing them of the staff’s decision. The letter was also posted on a private school Facebook page.

The parent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said losing staff would be “pretty devastating for this small school”.

“That school has all of a handful of teachers as it is.

“That’s major disruption – we’re heading into the end of the year and my thinking would be I’d rather have my [child] settled somewhere where I can be confident there’s going to be less disruption going into next year.

“I think the socially responsible thing for teachers to do is to get vaccinated because the issues are broader than your right to not be vaccinated.

“I love people that stand up for what they believe in but I don’t know that this is where you make a stand to be honest.”

In response, Gullick said he hated the impact it would have on the parent and their family.

“That’s the hardest part about it.

“I hate the impact it has on the school but yes it’s four weeks until the end of the year and they will be a bit more rocky than normal.”

School board presiding member Bridget Crawshaw said the board was still working through the process.

“We’re not allowed to make those decisions until we’ve got to the 15th because all staff can change their mind.”

Western Bay of Plenty Principals Association president Suzanne Billington said most schools across the region were dealing with “some sort of employment issue” due to the “difficult and complex situation” created by the mandate.

“All teachers want kids safe – we’re there for that reason.

“But this is difficult because although they’ve got a really professional commitment … they also have a personal response to this and they’re able to have that personal response.

“Principals are doing that really positively and compassionately because these people are their colleagues.”

The Ministry of Education was asked about the impact this would have on a school of this size, and how the ministry planned to support remaining staff members.

Education workforce leader Anna Welanyk said the ministry was working with schools that needed help to meet staffing needs on a case-by-case basis.

School boards would make the decision regarding staff members who had not received their first vaccination by November 15, she said.

“It would be considered based on the individual circumstances of each person.”

Welanyk said school leaders, education unions and principals’ groups were supporting education workers by providing information about the benefits and importance of getting vaccinated, with information available from the Ministry of Health and health providers.

When the mandate was announced, Education Minister Chris Hipkins said vaccination was the most effective tool to protect against infection, and high jab rates would help to protect staff from getting sick and passing it on, and would also reassure people anxious about their children at school.

Asked about teachers who could risk losing their jobs due to the mandate, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters this week: “We have not taken lightly the decision for some areas to require vaccination. It’s taken a lot of discussion and careful thought and we have focused in on those groups that we consider high-risk.”

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