It comes alongside a suite of changes such as teachers being directed to mark student absences due to parental concern about Covid safety as unjustified and a narrowing of close contact definitions

Schools are being asked to adjust to yet another set of rules as the Ministry of Education announces a series of changes to Covid-19 guidelines.

Chief among these is the ministry signalling a change to rules around students taking part in sports and kapa haka outside of school hours.

The decision to clarify the rules, which currently allow unvaccinated students to play a game of touch at school during lunch time, but not once the school bell rings at the end of the day, has been made “in principle”, according to the ministry’s Tuesday announcement, with more details to come.

This comes after the School Sport NZ board decided to require all school sport participants for School Sport NZ sanctioned events be fully vaccinated on December 3 last year. This is as they don’t come under school-time exemptions and therefore must adhere to regular red light settings.

Prior to the traffic light framework coming into play that same month, the group surveyed member principals and found 86 percent agreed with this layout of the rules.

But although details are yet to be solidified, it appears the 14 percent are soon to have their way.

School Sport NZ CEO Mike Summerell said working under the traffic light framework had been difficult.

“School Sport NZ supports access to school sport for all students. This has been challenging for us and the events that we sanction as we continue to operate within the constraints of the CPF, particularly at red,” he said. “We look forward to receiving further detail in relation to the Ministry of Education’s update released yesterday, and hope that consideration has been given to the many environments and settings that all rangatahi participate in, not just the school sport setting.”

National Party education spokesperson Erica Stanford said having a mandate that covered school sports but not PE lessons or other school activities never made sense.

“It was always a very odd argument that you could do PE lessons at school and you can do other school activities but you can’t do school sports,” she said. “The incidence of contracting Covid in an outdoor setting with perfect ventilation is pretty low, so I think the reason for restricting children from doing sports was always a little bit tenuous.”

Minister of Education Chris Hipkins says the u-turn is a pragmatic decision made after discussion with the sector and Ministries of Health and Education, but couldn’t provide a specific date as to when the mandate lift would be confirmed or implemented.

“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,” he said. “I hope to provide more guidance to schools and sporting organisations soon.”

Papatoetoe High School Principal Vaughan Couillault said students not being able to take part in extra-curricular sports but still being able to go to PE lessons was an unintended consequence of the ministry’s rules.

“I’d expect it to change soon so that school students can engage in school activities whether they are inside of school hours or not,” he said. “As the intention was not to prevent healthy activity like sport, also, we are seeing there’s almost no risk in catching Covid outside running around and having a game of touch.”

And while sport and school events may soon relax their mandates, the ministry is giving no quarter to parents keeping their children away from school due to fears about the virus.

Teachers are being directed to mark absences due to parental concerns about the Covid safety of schools as unjustified.

According to the ministry’s newsletter, it’s up to schools to work with these parents in order to ensure students can keep going to class.

“Where students are being kept at home because of parental anxieties, schools should work with those parents and caregivers to understand their reasons for keeping their children away from school and support their return to school,” the ministry stated, adding that via this method, schools could explain the benefits of attendance and the risk mitigations in place at school such as mask wearing and ventilation requirements directly to the parents.

The announcements also come with a reclassification of who is a close and who is a casual contact in schools – if the positive case is wearing a mask.

In contrast to previous policy, people will only be classed as close contacts if they have done something that may have exposed them directly to the respiratory excretions of the positive case.

This could be a kiss, a hongi, a shared vape, singing together or playing contact sports.

This means for children who have a positive case from within their ‘hub’ or classroom bubble, there will be no need for them to isolate if they were wearing a mask and not doing any of these activities.

However, with no change to household close contact rules at the moment, if the student comes into contact with a positive case within their household, they may still need to stay home and self-isolate.

The ministry has also announced that current close contacts who have not yet received a result from their day five test can return to school on day 11 should they continue to show no symptoms.

New Zealand Principal’s Federation President Dr Cherie Taylor-Patel said the changes were an attempt to support schools to be responsive in a changed context.

“Changes being made to COVID guidelines are in response to a virus that is incredibly unpredictable,” she said. “As the situation changes with numbers of cases, the impact this has on the health system and on the economy, guidelines change.”

Schools will also no longer need to upload information on who is a close contact to the Contact Tracing Upload Tool, although they are still asked to keep a record of who is a close contact.

This is in line with the move towards less Ministry of Health involvement in self-isolation, as the official ministry ‘release notifications’ also come to an end.

The changes were announced as New Zealand approached 3000 cases of Omicron a day, with the number of close and casual contacts on the increase accordingly, leaving schools up and down the country forced to do some tricky manoeuvres to keep staff to student ratios in line.

The latest numbers show almost 450 schools have reported cases, around half of them in Auckland.

Another new announcement from the Ministry of Education which may help keep schools running as close to business as usual as possible are the 200,000 rapid antigen tests (RATs) the ministry has ready for distribution. These, along with another 480,000 expected within a week, are available to prevent unsupervised children after staffing breakdowns.

Staff judged critical to the running of the school – as well as being asymptomatic and fully vaccinated – can break out of their close contact status if they provide a negative result with one of the RATs.

However, the ministry stressed this should only be used as a last resort, and suggested schools explore other options to make sure children have a teacher first, such as relief teachers, non-teaching staff providing supervision for distance learning or rearranging classes and timetables.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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