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SocietyOctober 18, 2021

Playcentre concerned about ‘fighting and animosity’ due to vaccine mandate

(Image: Getty)
(Image: Getty)

With more than 22,000 parents acting as volunteer teachers, the vaccine mandate is a big deal for Playcentre.

This post was first published on Emily Writes Weekly.

Early childhood organisation Playcentre Aotearoa has raised concerns about the government’s mandatory vaccination requirement for ECE teachers, according to a newsletter sent to members last week.

The Playcentre model, which dates back to 1941 and is unique to Aotearoa, sees each centre run as a parent cooperative – families work together to provide care and education for their children through play sessions that run for two to four hours. There are more than 420 centres around the country, with more than 22,000 parents and caregivers acting as volunteers to teach around 9,500 children.

Last June, Playcentre received a $3.7 million emergency funding boost from the government.

This week, the government mandated that all school and early-learning staff and support people who have contact with children and students must have had their first Covid-19 vaccine by November 15 and be fully vaccinated by January 1, 2022. 

Playcentre Aotearoa’s newsletter, sent on Thursday last week, said the organisation was working closely with the Ministry of Education and the Early Childhood Advisory Committee to raise “many concerns and questions based on what we are hearing from our staff and members”.

The newsletter said the organisation was in “uncharted territory” and “the mandate has not been applied to such a large voluntary organisation before”.

Members were told they would receive an update on how the mandate would apply in the “Playcentre context” after the Ministry of Health published the update to the Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order 2021. “Playcentre Aotearoa, as an organisation, has to uphold the law and what is mandated by legislation, and we are working towards developing processes and procedures which will allow us all to satisfy the requirements that have been placed upon all of us.”

The concerns raised with the Ministry of Education by Playcentre Aotearoa include the “impact” of the vaccine mandate on Playcentre’s volunteers, advice on continuing to meet licensing requirements, whether Playcentres will be offered additional support and who will monitor, record and be responsible for checking the vaccination status of parent volunteers. The organisation also asked: “How do we continue to uphold our Playcentre values of being inclusive and supporting our diverse membership?”

A feedback form for members was included with the newsletter, as was encouragement to support the Super Saturday vaccination event.

At 5.30pm on Friday, October 15, a second newsletter confirmed Playcentre will be subject to the mandate, meaning staff and volunteers – paid and unpaid – must comply.

“This mandate also includes parents or caregivers attending Playcentre playgroups and our infant programmes,” the newsletter said.

Friday’s newsletter called for calm within the Playcentre community. “We understand that there will be discussion and even disagreement about this mandate at local centres. These debates will have at their heart the same thing as the mandate; a desire to keep our children safe. We should remember that all of us at Playcentre can agree on that.”

A Playcentre parent who is president of her local chapter in Nelson said that while the immediate aftermath of the announcement might be hard, Playcentre will bounce back. “It will just become a new normal. At the moment it’s a very loud minority that’s not happy.” Although the national Facebook group has seen people threatening to leave as a result of the vaccine mandate, she believes there is a lot of support for it within the Playcentre community.

“I think it’s important to note that we would probably have had the same amount of families leave if it wasn’t mandatory, due to not wanting their children to be around unvaccinated people once delta gets here.”

Another Playcentre parent said she was concerned about the impact of the mandate. “Our centre has three families that are known anti-vaxxers. There could be more so we will lose a significant portion of our families.”

She said she supports the mandate, but is concerned about how it will work in practice. “I will feel a lot safer when the vaccination status of our members is known, as we have quite a few medically fragile children who I feel we need to protect.”

As it is currently unclear who will police the mandate, the parent said she was concerned it could cause “fighting and animosity” among friends and drive deeper divisions in the community. 

“I don’t think this decision will push people to get vaccinated so they can attend Playcentre,” she said. “I think it’s the children who will miss out and feel the repercussions of their parents’ decisions and my heart aches for them.”

A president at another Playcentre said managing the mandate may be difficult, as most centres’ AGMs, at which people are appointed to different roles, have already been held. “It’s hard thinking about roles that have been taken on or will be soon that potentially could be whānau that are gone in five weeks’ time,” she said.

“I’m double-vaxxed and just don’t know how I feel about it all, to be honest. I can understand and agree with mandates for our vulnerable people, and all our kids, but I’m also sad for kids that won’t get to come any more.

“If Playcentre becomes a ‘vaccinated only’ place, others lose their village. There’s a lot of emotion, but my values lie with science.”

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