The return to on-site learning means inflating bubbles and increasing risks for unvaccinated kids as daily rates of community cases climb

Coming out of lockdown has been a long and protracted process for Aucklanders, as elements of normal life come back into play one by one.

This week, the big step was the reopening of schools for all students Year 10 and under on Wednesday. That’s 200,000 students, back on campus for the first time in three months.

But a lack of specific guidance for teachers and the inability to vaccinate children has raised questions from teachers and parents about whether now is the time for the school bells to start ringing again.

Susan Underwood is a specialist teacher who travels between four schools in Auckland. This week she sent a letter to Minister of Education Chris Hipkins asking why now is the time for these students to go back to school, while community transmission is on the increase and vaccination is not yet an option for under 12s.

“While it’s inevitable that schools have to go back, schools need time to be given solid guidelines from the Government,” Underwood said.

Working as a classroom teacher during last year’s lockdown, she said the Ministry of Education left schools largely to figure things out for themselves, and with little warning.

“Schools don’t get the information until on the spot when the announcements are made, and then you’ve got four days to set up your procedures,” she said. “Often it’s left to classroom teachers to come up with how they are going to do the social distancing and the masking and work out their routines.”

And getting a classroom full of children to change their behaviour to match all the new safety measures isn’t easy.

“Children are children, they aren’t adults,” Underwood said. “They aren’t constantly mindful of these things.”

She contended teachers were being forced to shoulder the responsibility of huge and unstable bubbles of children with minimal guidance and short notice.

“We locked down because the use of masks and social distancing was not enough to protect us,” Underwood wrote in her letter to Hipkins. “Now we are expecting children to instantly know how to be safe and to consistently comply with these expectations.”

Teacher Susan Underwood wants to see more specific guidelines on what teachers need to do on a classroom level. Photo: Supplied

In last week’s announcement of the return to school for all students, Hipkins said measures such as mask use from Year 4 upwards, classroom ventilation, small groups and social distancing would help minimise the risk of Covid transmission within schools.

“Lockdowns can be stressful for children and young people, so returning to some on-site learning will mean they can reconnect with their teacher and friends,” he said. “Starting this month will provide certainty ahead of the Christmas break and before the new school year starts.”

But with ICUs around the country gearing up to cope with a virus that isn’t going anywhere soon, Underwood wonders if the risk is worth it. With four weeks left in the term and students coming to school two days a week, they are only going to get eight full days of learning.

“In these four weeks, no learning is going to be happening,” Underwood said.

The Ministry of Education has distributed a checklist of suggestions to manage risk when opening up during Level 3, which includes a long list of new responsibilities for school administrators and teachers to juggle.

Among these are making sure there are no early drop-offs at school in the morning, monitoring entrances, and timetabling access to playground areas.

But even if the students aren’t all out on the playground at once and teachers spend a good amount of energy making sure they socially distance and keep their masks over their nose during class time, there’s a certain amount of chaos on the playground that makes risk difficult to mitigate.

“Play time for kids is a time for them to let go – they’re all outside, everybody gets a bit relaxed. You can constantly try to manage that, but they are kids – they play tag,” Underwood said. “We are putting our kids into environments where we are expecting them to manage and control all of this themselves.”

Students congregating on the playground at interval and lunch time – where teachers have less control over them – may pose a greater risk of transmission. Photo: Matthew Scott

When asked if it was too soon for on-site learning to return, the Ministry of Education responded that it was a complicated situation in which it needed to strike the right balance. Nevertheless, there would be benefits for children who had been stuck at home for months finally being able to get back in the classroom.

“We recognise this is a complex situation, and we are balancing education outcomes and wellbeing with the need to protect the health of young people and school staff,” said Sean Teddy, leader of operation and integration at the Ministry of Education. “Students, parents and whānau can be assured that our approach strictly aligns with public health advice and is designed to keep students, their teachers and their communities as safe as possible.”

Meanwhile, the president of the New Zealand Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) said the notice given for primary students was more realistic than last month’s sudden announcement of back to school for secondary students.

“The Government’s announcement that these students will return from next Wednesday, 17 November provides a much more realistic timeline than that given recently for the return of senior students; two days’ notice put a huge and unnecessary pressure on schools,” said PPTA Te Wehengarua president Melanie Webber. “With the re-opening of all schools, we urge the Government to provide clearer, sharper, national guidelines for all schools, particularly around responses to Covid-19 cases occurring in the school community.”

It has been reported that schools don’t represent huge transmission risks, with the WHO saying there have been a relatively small number of outbreaks reported among teachers to date.

However, the WHO website also notes that as children are more likely to have a milder form of the disease and potentially show fewer symptoms, cases may go unnoticed in school environments.

Like many aspects of the pandemic, it is too soon to say for sure exactly what will happen. The same site goes on to say “the longer-term effects of keeping schools open on community transmission are yet to be evaluated”.

Underwood said her feelings of anxiety were shared by a number of other primary teachers – especially as their role means they lose the choice over whether to send their own kids back to school. Most parents have that choice, but given teachers are expected to be back at work, they may not have the same option.

“A teacher I work with was in tears about these expectations and struggles with deciding to put her children at risk or find people to care for them while she works and then of course could bring Covid back to her family,” Underwood said.

A friend who teaches in Ireland has shared some of the difficulties educators may soon face here.

“She said children just don’t understand the importance to socially distance and use masks. It is hugely stressful for her and the virus is out of control,” Underwood said. “It’s like everyone has just given up. She is sorry to hear that our schools are opening. Being on the other side of it, she feels for New Zealand teachers and schools right now.”

Underwood awaits a direct response to her letter, but like many teachers, she is hoping for a rethink so teachers and families have the time and space they need to figure out how to run schools with full protection.

“We are a team of five million fighting against Covid, right? Let’s not put our children, our taonga, on the front lines. Remember, they have no say in any of this.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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