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By Ella Stewart, RNZ News reporter

A Northland high school principal says she has been accused of being “complicit in mass genocide” by people opposed to getting vaccinated.

After today, anyone who works or volunteers in an education setting in New Zealand and who has not received at least one dose of the covid-19 vaccine will be barred from school grounds.

Last week, thousands of people marched up the streets of Wellington to Parliament to protest for various covid-19-related reasons.

Some were angry at the covid-19 vaccination mandates, the lockdowns or the vaccine itself.

The protesters screamed abuse at police and media, demanding an end to covid-19 restrictions.

This level of anger is all too familiar for Whangārei Boys High School principal Karen Gilbert-Smith.

“I appreciate that what’s happening for a lot of people is really challenging, but the kind of things that have been happening from my end, and I know speaking to other colleagues, they’re experiencing similar things, is relentlessness that we’re doing something to others,” Gilbert-Smith said.

‘Worst message’
“I think the worst message that I got was that I was complicit in mass genocide by supporting the vaccination mandate,” she said.

“We get a lot of emails from parents: the vast majority of those are positive, but the ones that kind of take the wind out of your sails and that require the most thoughtful response are the ones that are really awful and vindictive.”

The abuse was coming from all angles and although it was a minority, their voices were loud, Gilbert-Smith said.

“I think it’s the ill-informed or misinformed anti-vaxxers that are really whipping up that hatred. That just feels really abhorrent to me that misinformation just gets so widely spread and is leading to that sense of lack of safety for people in their communities.”

But today the no jab, no job policy for education staff officially kicks in.

Teachers need to have received at least one dose of the covid-19 vaccine if they want to continue to work with students in a face-to-face learning environment.

‘Where are we going to find those replacements?’
Gilbert-Smith preferred not to comment on their own staffing situation at Whangārei Boys High School, but did say she was nervous.

“As principals, many of us have had conversations about the impact in our own schools and certainly in Te Tai Tokerau, it’s likely to have a significant impact on staffing across our schools, so we’re not just talking about teachers,” she said.

“We’re talking about groundsmen, canteen staff, support staff, everyone. We can ill afford to have staffing shortages and in Tai Tokerau it’s difficult enough.”

She is concerned that it will impact on students.

“It’s hard enough to put well qualified, passionate, knowledgeable, smart teachers in front of students, which is what they deserve. And now we’re in a situation of being a little bit further behind than that.

“Where are we going to find those replacements? Particularly teachers. That is very worrying to me.”

She said the constant hate and abuse was wearing her down and was making it harder for her to do her job.

‘Creating reassurance’
“Principals are creating reassurance for everyone in their community, but also fielding all the negativity that comes. Anyone with aspirations of being a principal right now, they might be reconsidering at this point,” she said.

“We are obliged to uphold the law, and that’s what we’re doing as principals, and we’re doing the best that we can. We’re managing people’s expectations and we’re dealing with their upset and distress.

“And keeping the school running as we’re supposed to do on any other day of the week, or any other time of the year. It is a lot of work.”

Gilbert-Smith said she loved her job, but the current conversations had moved too far away from being about creating better outcomes for young people in Aotearoa.

“That’s a real shame because they are the ones that will suffer, those young people in our schools.”

The impact of the vaccine mandate on teacher supply will not be known until the vaccination deadline has passed and numbers are clear, according to the Ministry of Health.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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