Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: Minister of Education Chris Hipkins considering options for unvaxxed school sports

The Government is considering whether changes can be made that could let children play sport for their school if they are not vaccinated against Covid.

Thousands of unvaccinated children over age 12 have been told they can’t represent their school at extra-curricular sports games without a vaccine pass.

Sports organisations say their hands are tied as they have to follow the rules of the red traffic light setting, which limits gatherings to 25 people if some are unvaccinated.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins told the Herald today he was looking at what could be done and hoped to give schools and sports organisations more guidance next week.

Vaccine passes can’t be used for activities that are part of the school curriculum, such as physical education or swimming lessons during school time.

But any extra-curricular activities – like afterschool sports training or weekend games – currently come under the traffic light system and are subject to gathering limits.

That means if vaccine passes are used, gatherings are limited to 100 people, but without vaccine passes only 25 people can attend. Vaccine passes can only be required for people aged over 12 years and 3 months.

That’s led secondary school sport organisations like College Sport Auckland to insist all students be fully vaccinated and show a vaccine pass to attend interschool competitions.

Chief executive Mark Barlow told Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis Allan on Tuesday that a 25-person limit would mean most of their sports events couldn’t take place.

He said about 60,000 kids were involved in College Sport around New Zealand. More than 90 per cent of kids aged 12-17 are double-vaccinated, but Barlow said several thousand would still be excluded.

Asked if it was fair to require vaccine passes, Barlow said the organisation had no option but to follow Government rules.

If the traffic light framework did not apply to sport, it was unlikely they would choose to have a vaccine mandate for kids as they wanted everyone to play. If the rules were relaxed, the organisation’s board would quickly review its policy.

Extra-curricular sports were an important part of education, Barlow said.

“Education’s not just about the classroom … sport has a huge part to play in the education of New Zealanders.”

On Thursday night the Ministry of Education clarified to schools that weekend sport – including school sport – was considered an extracurricular activity and must follow traffic light system rules.

At the red setting, only 25 people could attend an event if vaccine passes weren’t required. This would also apply to team trainings held outside school hours.

But it encouraged schools to select venues and organisations that did not discriminate by vaccine status.

“If you want more than 25 people at team practices (in any defined space), you will need to require My Vaccine Pass, which, as you know, will prevent those students not yet fully vaccinated from participating,” the ministry wrote.

“We encourage you, wherever possible, to choose activities, providers and venues for extra-curricular activities that will support all your students to participate regardless of their vaccine status.”

The ministry did not clarify what this would mean for sports that need more than 25 people in attendance, such as a rugby game, or for interschool events like swimming competitions that may be held outside school hours.

Chris Hipkins, who is Minister for both Education and the Covid-19 Response, said on Thursday children should be able to participate in school life regardless of their vaccination status.

The Herald today asked the minister whether he was considering making an exception under the traffic light framework for school sport that was played outside school hours.

“I’ve been in discussions with the sector and the Health and Education ministries about this,” Hipkins said in an emailed statement.

“We have always said we would be pragmatic about the guidelines so we are looking at what can be done, while making sure our kids are kept as safe as possible.

“I hope to be able to provide more guidance to schools and sporting organisations early next week.”

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