Back to school with Omicron: How we will keep schools open with new variant

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 23 Jan 2022, 10:01am

Back to school with Omicron: How we will keep schools open with new variant

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 23 Jan 2022, 10:01am

Back to school should be about uniforms, lunches, and picking the right device, so when news broke of an Omicron case at a cafe in Auckland there was a collective groan among Kiwi parents. Suspected cases are now at five as around 800,000 children are expected at school in a little over a week's time. Parents and teachers spoken to by the Herald on Sunday said they were upset and uncertain heading into the new school year. Reporter Kirsty Wynn put their concerns to Covid response and education minister Chris Hipkins. 

Since Covid landed in New Zealand, students have missed out on months of face-to-face learning. 

The full impact socially, emotionally, and academically has not yet been revealed. 

It's something Chris Hipkins says he is painfully aware of and is why the new priority is face-to-face learning. 

Will all schools start back on site the week of 1 February? 

Yes, at this stage, my expectation is that schools will be opening next week. We are starting the year as normal and we want more face-to-face learning. 

We want everyone back in class this year and we have different ways of dealing with Covid 19 now than we did over the past two years. 

Covid-19 Response and Education Minister Chris Hipkins is making face-to-face learning in schools a priority this year. Photo / Mark Mitchell 

One of the significant shifts is rather than lockdown we will be shifting to a focus when if you are sick, or someone in your household is sick you stay home. 

Kids will experience disruption if they, a close contact, or someone in their household is sick, but otherwise they will be at school and in class. 

What will happen if there is a positive case at school? 

A single case will not force a school closure and we are going to have to get used to the idea it is a virus we will have to live with. 

Public health will work with schools and how they manage cases and what action needs to be taken. How that's done will depend on what stage we are at and what numbers we are dealing with. 

We are expecting there will be a lot of cases potentially, so that means our response will change. 

We want less wholesale disruption this year. My message for families is to be prepared if someone in your household is sick and you all need to isolate. 

We expect big case numbers, but we also know a lot of those people can stay home and get better. 

What happens if teachers get sick; what if schools are short-staffed? 

When teachers are sick, they will have to stay home. 

Everyone wants kids back in class this year but it needs to be done safely and with clear processes, parents say. Photo / Getty Images 

Where that has a disproportionate effect on a school, for example they cannot staff themselves because they have so many teachers at home, then yes that might have an effect on a school community for a time. 

Is there a plan to recruit more teachers to help with shortages? 

We have been working on getting more teachers back into New Zealand - we have been working to secure places for teachers but in terms of travel, it has been difficult. We are moving to a self-isolation model soon, so that will help change that dynamic. 

Will booster shots be mandated for teachers? 

It is likely but we haven't made a decision on this yet. If it is mandated and there is an impact on staffing numbers, the Ministry of Education will work with schools just as it did last year. 

Along with usual contact tracing and social distancing, what extra precautions will schools take with Omicron? 

We are looking at N95 masks at the moment but we don't have any formal guidance on that. For now, the mask requirement will be the same as last year. Very young students don't require mask use but partway through primary school, they need to wear a mask in class. 

There will also be a focus on ventilation, with students spending as much time outside the classroom as possible. Air purifiers have been ordered and are expected in classes before winter when it's not possible to have doors and windows open. 

Will students eventually have to take at-home tests like in Australia to attend school? 

We haven't ruled that out, but one of the challenges is getting access to enough tests. 

What about school camps and trips – will students have to show vaccine passes to participate? 

We have just signed new instructions that where a venue is being used by the school exclusively it should be treated as an extension of school. There is no vaccination mandate for students to attend school. 

This means school camps could go ahead if the camp was booked exclusively by the school. 

We don't want anyone to miss out on those out-of-school experiences because they are so valuable. 

We are just in the process of working with venues used for educational purposes on this. 

If it is a trip, say, to the library, where there is intermingling with the public, then that is different. 

What about wellbeing – will there be extra help for those who need it? 

We have been rolling out additional counselling support in schools and that is going well. There is also help for teachers if they are thinking "this is all too much" or they are stressed and need to talk to someone. 

Do you have a message for parents and students? 

One of the messages I have for young people is kids here have been remarkably resilient over two years of challenges. 

We can't underestimate the impact of that but also, we should look at the benefit they have drawn from that as well. 

That resilience and adaptability if they have embraced that will serve them well in adult life.  
Life is uncertain and unpredictable and can throw up new challenges you weren't expecting, and how you adapt to those challenges is really important. 

Primary, intermediate and high school children optimistic this year will be better 

Talia Barber turned 5 in August last year – the same day Auckland was plunged into a snap Delta-enforced lockdown that dragged on until the traffic light system was introduced on December 3. 

The Pukekohe girl's party was cancelled, the bouncy castle deflated, and parents Ashley and Cameron Barber pulled the pin on their eldest daughter starting in 2021 after a positive case at the school. 

Talia Barber turned 5 the day Auckland went into level 4 lockdown last year and missed out on her birthday party and start of school. Photo / Supplied 

This year Talia hopes "the sickness" will go away and give her a chance to learn alongside new friends and a real teacher. 

"She missed out on a lot last year with her birthday and her party so we are all hoping this year will be different," Ashley Barber said. 

"We couldn't meet her teacher because of Covid but we were sent a page with a photo of and a bit about her." 

With baby Mia at home and her husband Cameron working, Ashley, who is on maternity leave from nursing, said remote learning would be a challenge. 

Ashley and Cameron Barber with children Mia, 1, and Talia, 5, want as much class time as possible in 2022. Photo / Supplied 

"I'm not a teacher and those first few months learning the basics are really important so I wouldn't want to get it wrong," she said. 

Over in the central Auckland suburb of Point Chevalier, Luis and Ella Kerrigan are also hoping the majority of this school year is in class. 

Luis, 14, is in Year 10 at Mt Albert Grammar and a keen cricket and rugby player. 

'I'm hoping we have a full season of cricket and rugby this year and that we have some consistency in learning – not chopping and changing formats and timetables. 

Ella and Luis Kerrigan are hoping this year brings face-to-face classes, sports and time with friends. Photo / Supplied 

"I'm also looking forward to playing competitive school sport for the first time in a long time." 

Sister Ella, 11, is about to start at Pasadena Intermediate in Year 7 and said she doesn't want another year away isolated from friends and learning from home. 

"The amount of time spent on a device last year was too much and I was missing social activities at school. 

"I hope we don't go back to online learning because last year I wasn't as productive and I know there were times I could have done better work." 

Father Joe Kerrigan, who is a teacher, said his hope for Kiwi kids was schools were kept safe with the arrival of Omicron. 

"I hoping schools can receive funding from the Government to improve ventilation and monitoring in classrooms," he said. 

"Overall I hope that the kids can start to enjoy schooling again because in the past two years a lot of the fun of school has been missing."