Masks and portable air cleaners aren’t the best solutions for schools, says Chris Hipkins. The minister responsible for education and Covid-19 told political editor Jo Moir more needs to be done to get that message across to parents.

The debate about how best to ventilate school classrooms does Chris Hipkins’ head in.

In an interview with Newsroom, the education and Covid-19 minister said there were lots of anxieties about mask-wearing and ventilation in schools, but the evidence was clear on both.

“The thing about ventilation that does my head in is people immediately jump to the technological solution when there are other solutions that are more realistic and practical,’’ he said.

“If you open a classroom window by a couple of inches, you’re going to replenish the air on an hourly basis more frequently than an air cleaner would.’’

Hipkins said even in winter he would rather the country have a more expensive power bill for heating classrooms than rely on portable air cleaners.

“We’ll be working with schools as we head into winter to make sure they’ve got options, and there are portable air cleaners available.

“But if the solution was to buy portable air cleaners for every classroom we would have, but if you’re using that when you could have a window open, then the window is the better option,’’ he said.

Moving classroom interaction outdoors is another useful way to minimise transmission and schools are working on how best to do that.

“It’s a case of making families aware of all this as well,’’ Hipkins told Newsroom.

That message includes explaining to parents what interactions are the most risky in a Covid environment.

The best science advice is that “classroom transmission isn’t the thing to be worried about,’’ he said.

“Classrooms well managed with ventilation aren’t going to be the source of the problem. The far bigger risk is all the things that go on around school.

“It’s the social interactions between and after classes, kids’ birthdays and sleepovers – they’re all a far greater risk than kids sitting in classrooms,’’ Hipkins said.

“It’s not good to gaslight parents in schools.” – Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson

As for masks, Hipkins said there are “great levels of anxiety on both sides’’ of the debate.

“Some think masks are a barrier to the learning process and for younger kids they’re really problematic.

“We had a lot of feedback from schools saying how challenging that was through to other people saying kids should have masks on all the time,’’ he said.

Again, Hipkins said it’s a case of coming back to the evidence.

“For kids sitting in a classroom doing stationary activities with ventilation, the risk isn’t as high as it is for some of those activities that go on between and after classes.’’

National’s Covid-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop told Newsroom the benefits of ventilation were “poorly understood’’.

“People still think you can get Covid outside – it’s nearly impossible to get Covid outside. You walk around the place in Parliament and supermarkets, people have got the big screens up that inhibit airflow, which is actually counterproductive.’’

‘’But to be fair to the public, the science of ventilation has changed and evolved.’’

He says the World Health Organisation has been “way too slow’’ to be clear with the public about Covid being an airborne disease.

On masks he says the science is “more up in the air” and while mask-wearing makes a difference it’s for the health experts to decide what is best in schools.

“The thing about ventilation that does my head in is people immediately jump to the technological solution when there are other solutions that are more realistic and practical.” – Chris Hipkins

The Green Party has consistently called for more portable air ventilation tools and masks to be worn in schools.

Co-leader Marama Davidson says some schools are set up better than others but for many schools it will “involve air ventilators as well’’.

On masks, co-leader James Shaw says there are people who feel anxious about wearing masks and those who get the same feeling from not wearing them.

“The basis on which to make the decision is what is most effective in terms of reducing the transmission of Covid, and that would be for kids to wear masks,’’ Shaw said.

Davidson pointed to advice from the Director-General of Health that wearing masks indoors was effective for stopping transmission, and that was the health advice she was interested in.

Parents being ‘gaslit’ with catastrophising comments

Hipkins says there are a lot of anxieties around Covid, and children pick up on the conversations parents have, which often aren’t helpful.

In the same interview, parts of which were first published on Wednesday, he said parents had an important role to play in reassuring children Covid was a challenge – but something the country would get through.

“Kids pick up public discourse is happening around them and I think there is still quite a lot of anxiety and catastrophising going on around Covid-19, and I think kids pick up on that.’’

Asked who or what he thought was being catastrophised, Hipkins said it was a “general observation, not designed as a criticism’’.

“It’s just all those informal conversations people have around the place that kids hear and are part of, everything from, will I still have a job to will the family get Covid again?

“We all have a role here to make sure we’re positively projecting for our young people.

“I’ve got kids of my own, I think about this all the time. Our household has a lot of anxieties in it related to Covid, but I work bloody hard to make sure I don’t pass that onto the kids and they don’t see that, and I think every household needs to think about that,’’ Hipkins said.

But Davidson told Newsroom those sorts of comments weren’t fair on parents and families who had “valid anxieties’’.

“It’s not good to gaslight parents in schools.

“I think what they’re feeling is fair and we should have some leadership around communications at that community level,’’ she said.

ACT leader David Seymour said there was no question children and parents were feeling anxious about a whole raft of things but the Prime Minister had helped feed that.

“The rhetoric of the Prime Minister was we’re all on the team facing the big killer tricky virus, and thousands of people may die, and we have to form a protective wall.

“All of that rhetoric bathed our Covid response in a climate of fear, and I think Chris Hipkins has spoken truer than he knew, or intended to, when he made those comments,’’ Seymour told Newsroom.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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