31 Aug 2020

Auckland kids heading back to school, but not all are convinced it's safe

1:12 pm on 31 August 2020

With about 250,000 children returning to school in Auckland today, teachers and parents are divided over whether they should be going back at all.

Students of the eleventh grade sit with face masks in a classroom of the Phoenix high school in Dortmund, western Germany, on 12 August 2020, amid the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

Wearing masks at school is optional. Photo: AFP

The government announced yesterday the move down to alert level 2.5 would be going ahead, meaning all schools will re-open, and all children are expected to attend.

In a bulletin sent around schools on Friday, the Ministry of Education outlined what schools should and shouldn't do under alert level 2.

Schools are not classified as gatherings, so people can get together in groups of larger than 10, although there will be social distancing measures in place, including physical distancing, hand hygiene, cough and sneeze etiquette, and regular cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch surfaces.

All institutions will also be made to display a QR code, and keep a register, to enable contact tracing.

But despite these precautions, some parents and teachers are concerned about the decision to go back while cases are still being identified.

Parents split over whether to send children back to school

An Auckland mother-of-four, who wished to remain anonymous, said she would be keeping her children at home for another week at least.

"What is making me decide to keep the children at home from school for another week is my uncertainty, rather than anything that anyone's doing right or wrong.

"I just don't know, and because I can keep them home, I'd prefer to, for my own peace of mind really."

Her four children go to four separate schools, and she said another factor was that they live in an area where some cases have been confirmed.

She wasn't confident children at schools could keep their distance from each other.

"It sounds to me as though even older teens aren't able to, in the moment, make sensible decisions about social distancing.

"I am concerned about things like walking to and from classrooms, crowded hallways."

Frances Mahoney said she was, for the most part, relieved to be sending her 14-year-old son back to school.

Her son attends Mount Albert Grammar, a school which was part of the Marist cluster during the first lockdown, and has had two pupils test positive in this most recent cluster.

All students and staff were tested late last week, and there have been no more positive results, she said.

While she knows of some parents who were worried about sending their kids back, she's not one of them.

"I just [think], look at the end of the day, they shut it down really quickly, if there's an issue. I'm really comfortable. They're very strict on the fact that if they're not well, please don't come to school."

The president of the Auckland Secondary Principals' Association, Steve Hargreaves said there will be a few parents who don't send their children back to school.

"Just like after the lockdown, there's a bit of nervousness around community transmission and if you've got a vulnerable person at home you might not send your child to school."

He said that around 95 percent of his students are back at school today and the ones he's spoken to seem relaxed.

Should school buses be exempt from mandatory mask-wearing?

In countries such as the UK, mask wearing has been made compulsory for pupils in communal areas. There, the government has advised secondary school pupils to wear masks.

But while in New Zealand, the wearing of masks will become mandatory on public transport, school buses have been given an exemption.

On Thursday, the Director of Public Health, Dr Caroline McElnay, said, "Based on what we know about face coverings and transmission in children, we are taking this balanced approach at this time. If new evidence emerges, this guidance will be revised."

Post-Primary Teachers' Association vice president and Auckland-based teacher, Melanie Webber, said the different rules were confusing.

"For example, for things like mask-wearing, that you have to wear a mask on a public bus, but you don't have to wear one on a school bus, that sort of inconsistency is concerning."

Auckland Primary Principals' Association president and Point Chevalier School principal, Stephen Lethbridge, said they were following Ministry of Education guidelines, which state: "Face coverings are not required at school or on any school transport. Anyone who chooses to wear a face covering in any setting should be supported to do so."

"We're encouraging all of our communities to wear masks when they head out in public, but also we're not discouraging anyone from bringing masks as they choose to."

Lethbridge said primary teachers he's spoken to were looking forward to seeing kids back in class and were ready to go back.

"We managed this last time with relative ease. Schools are really well prepared, our kids are pretty resilient, and they follow the rules," Lethbridge said.

Webber said she was conflicted about the disparity between what might happen at schools and the rest of society.

"There is no perfect answer to this, it is really tricky. We really want to see our students, but we're worried about seeing our students. We're worried about what's going to happen with their education, and we're worried about what's going to happen going forward."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs