7 Oct 2021

Teachers feeling anxious about return to school: 'It is far too soon'

9:23 am on 7 October 2021

The government is facing a teacher backlash over plans to reopen Auckland's classrooms after the school holidays.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Union leaders have told RNZ their Auckland members are astonished they could be back in school on 18 October while businesses in the region like restaurants and hairdressers remain shut.

Post Primary Teachers' Association Auckland region chairperson Michael Cabral-Tarry said schools should not reopen on 18 October.

"It is far too soon. We simply do not feel safe to return to normal business at the moment," he said.

"We think a good prerequisite might be 80 percent double-dosed in those communities where Delta is still rampant. We would hope that would mean schools are that much safer."

Cabral-Tarry said the government was providing guidance on how Auckland schools could operate safely at level 3 sometime next week and that was too late.

PPTA Auckland region deputy chairperson Paul Stevens said he was not happy about the likelihood of returning to school in a week-and-a-half when there was still community transmission of Covid-19.

"Like many teachers I'm feeling quite anxious at the moment about going back. It's not very long, the 18th of October is coming up very fast, and I think the main thing teachers are feeling at the moment is trepidation about the uncertainty of what it's going to look like once we go back."

Stevens said teachers were as worried about the risk of giving Covid to their students as they were about catching the disease themselves.

He said the government was essentially asking schools to operate at alert level 2 while the rest of the Auckland community was operating at level 3.

"The idea that you wouldn't be able to get a haircut or go to a restaurant, but teachers would be asked to be in a classroom and students to be in a closed classrooms, which is exactly the circumstances that we know are perfect environments for Covid to spread, you can understand the anxiety that teachers are feeling," he said.

President of the Educational Institute Liam Rutherford said it had received a lot of calls from Auckland primary and intermediate school teachers worried about the prospect of reopening.

"We've got a lot of members that are really nervous about what it is going to mean if the country is going to open up schools with community transmission. There are still a lot of unanswered questions with vaccines, with masks," he said.

He said the union would be guided by public health advice but teachers, like other workers deserved to be safe.

Support for vaccine mandate

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said Cabinet would vote on Monday on making Covid-19 vaccinations compulsory for teachers.

The plan already had the support of the Post Primary Teachers' Association. The union's executive voted earlier this week to support any public health order mandating vaccinations for teachers.

Auckland teachers spoken to by RNZ agreed they should be vaccinated.

Māori-medium primary school teacher Luanda Milo said she had no problem with requiring teachers to get vaccinated especially if it allowed schools to ease restrictions on personal distancing in classrooms.

"Honestly I don't really see the issue in it, I don't see the problem in it whatsoever. I think it's a good thing to keep us and our tamariki safe," she said.

Secondary teacher Aman Pillay said he supported mandatory vaccines for teachers.

He said he was looking forward to returning to school but he would like to see a push to vaccinate teenagers.

"I think there should be an approach toward getting all those students who are at least over 12," he said.

But the principal of May Road School Lynda Stuart said persuading reluctant teachers to get a vaccination would be more effective than forcing them.

"It's always better if you can get that significant number of people vaccinated by them wanting to do it themselves. I think that there's a problem when you have to mandate something," she said.

She also warned against worrying too much about reopening schools on 18 October, saying the situation could change a lot.

"We're talking the equivalent of 10 days, 12 days out from going back to school. At this point in time I'm quite relaxed. I think as it gets closer to the time things will get a bit clearer whether it's the right decision for us to be back in school on the 18th of October," she said.

Children not the biggest threat in education settings

Auckland paediatrician Dr Jin Russell told Morning Report it was a surprise to find that Tāmaki Makaurau was pivoting to reopen schools quicker than most expected.

"But overall, given that we do know that prolonged school closures can be harmful for children, and given that the risk of Covid-19 generally to children is low, I think that this is a reasonable move - to open schools in ECEs and plan to open them.

"The key message that I have is that we now need too immediately make sure that we're going to open schools and ECEs as safely as possible and follow overseas evidence on how to do that.

"The key thing to say here is that the risk of Covid-19 spread within ECEs and schools is not driven by children themselves.

"Children themselves, if they are infected with Covid-19 - and we know this from a report on the Delta outbreak in Sydney - have a low likelihood of transmitting the virus to other children.

"In fact it's something like 2 percent or less of infected children will pass the virus on within an educational setting but the risk of spread within schools is driven by adults.

"The highest risk of spread within schools and ECEs from adult to adult and then from adult to child.

"Adult to child transmission is much higher than child to child transmission, and that's why I've been saying that it's so important that we aim for as close to 100 percent of teachers vaccinated...

"I would feel reassured if I knew that 100 percent of teachers are vaccinated and I'd like to see the government strongly signal on this.

"I think that the government needs to take their legal advice on it, but I would be grateful if it were legally possible for a vaccine mandate to be in place."

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