Secondary school teachers are "dismayed and angry" at the government's announcement that students in Years 11-13 who live in alert level 3 areas will be able to return to classrooms on 26 October, a union says.
The New Zealand Post Primary Teachers' Association (PPTA) said the Minister of Education and Minister for the Covid-19 Reponse Chris Hipkins did not consult with them.
At the 1pm briefing today, Hipkins said decisions on schools and early learning services in alert level 3 areas were finely-balanced ones.
"Exams are racing up for our senior secondary school students in particular and the stresses and strains that learning from home creates become more evident by the day.
"We want to get our young people back in the classroom as soon as we can but we also want to keep them and the wider community safe."
PPTA Te Wehengarua president Melanie Webber said in a statement: "We're not sure who Minister Hipkins consulted before he made his announcement, but he certainly didn't talk to PPTA. We have strongly supported public health advice, including mandatory vaccination for teachers, throughout this pandemic. However, we have not seen any public health advice that enables these actions announced today.
"It's beyond belief that in the very week the case numbers in this pandemic in New Zealand have reached an all-time high and are expected to increase significantly, coupled with the fact that young people aged between 12 and 19 have the lowest vaccination rates, that the government would open up secondary schools to hundreds of thousands of students.
"The government seems to have gone from acting out of an abundance of caution to a reckless disregard for the consequences in the blink of an eyelid."
Principal of Kia Aroha College in South Auckland Haley Milne told Checkpoint the news was "a gift that's not really a gift".
"You know, I'm a little bit worried about all of the precautions that need to be taken. I'm really worried about the conflicting messages...
"For our community, we're very Māori and Pacific, so at level 3 ... we've been told our community has been impacted with the locations of interest ... stay home, stay safe. Don't go anywhere. And then two days notice, and everybody can go back on site. Our community is just really worried about what this actually all means."
She did not think pupils would turn up, either.
"I just put a quick poll out on my Facebook page, and the response was 'No we're not ready yet'. There's too many questions and not enough answers, and just because the government said we can open up on Tuesday we're not sure."
She said the Ministry of Health was "really making lots of decisions and the Ministry of Education just sort of tries to implement them, but what's missing is how that actually works on the grounds of schools".
Albany Senior High School principal Claire Amos told Afternoons she was disappointed that concern around NCEA exams had lead to schools reopening earlier than necessary.
She would rather schools stayed closed for longer.
"I actually think it would have taken a whole lot of courage to keep the schools closed because we've had a lot of community pressure around things like exams," Amos said.
"Our community doesn't necessarily understand that you don't need to actually take physical exams, many students and schools moved away from a focus on external examinations."
NCEA was a flexible system and schools had a number of creative options to evidence students learning with or without exams, she said.
James Cook High principal Grant McMillan said the reaction from his community was mixed.
"We're getting quite a lot of reaction right now from students, families, whanau and staff. It ranges from almost celebration through to some real anxiety and nervous about is it safe, is it safe to come back," he said.
McMillan said he was not sure perservering with exams was the right move.
"It looks a little bit like the band on the Titanic, we're going to keep playing regardless of the tide and I do think there was an opportunity here for the authorities, who live outside of Auckland, to be a little more nuanced, a little more sophisticated in their thinking," he said.
May Road School principal Lynda Stuart said keeping Auckland primary schools shut was the right move.
"I know that the staff are really dying to be back with their children and the children are dying to be back at school but the first thing that we need to make sure of is that we can do it safely," she said.
Stuart said it would take a lot of planning to ensure primary schools could reopen while there were cases of Covid-19 in the community.
The Ministry of Education said reopening Auckland's classrooms to senior students was in their best interests.
In a message to schools today, it said allowing the students back into classrooms was critical for their learning.
Today's announcement was based on advice from public health experts, it said.
Experts weigh in
In comments provided via the Science Media Centre, University of Auckland Physics Department lecturer and Te Pūnaha Matatini principal investigator Dr Dion O'Neale said the move to reopen schools for senior students at the start of next week represented a significant risk for increasing case numbers.
"In addition to new infections that will occur directly from interactions at schools, re-opening schools creates large numbers of indirect new connections between households from otherwise weakly connected parts of the community.
"Modelling suggests that most of the extra infections from schools reopening will actually show up in non-school contexts as a result of students subsequently infecting other people in their households or in other community interactions."
University of Canterbury College of Education, Health & Human Development Associate Professor Arindam Basu said there was a risk of infection spreading once schools reopened.
"It was encouraging to note that wearing of masks was made mandatory for students and staff, and negative tests and vaccination will be in place, with emphasis on outdoor classes.
"One other thing would be important in this context: that of improving ventilation in the classrooms. School classrooms traditionally do not have the best ventilation facilities, and Covid-19 is an airborne infection. Besides that, accurate record keeping about attendances and strict control of truancy would be key steps here to minimise spread to and from schools.
"For Covid-19, we know there are four related features that determine the extent of spread, all things considered. First, poor ventilation and crowding, leading to potential superspreading events as Covid-19 spreads in a manner where most infections result from few, and most people would not pass to the others.
"Second, masking is absolutely necessary to minimise spread from source ... Third, regardless, vaccination with two doses is necessary to minimise severe infections ... Finally, limiting the number of people sharing a space is important. A two-metre distance is possibly a minimum distance."
Balancing allowing students face-to-face learning while managing the public health risk was important and the step was commendable, Basu said.
University of Auckland School of Population Health developmental paediatrician and PhD student Dr Jin Russell said - also via the Science Media Centre - the government decision was balanced.
"Doing our best for children during the pandemic means reducing both the direct harms of the pandemic - that is, being infected with Covid-19, and the indirect harms. Overseas, we see that prolonged school closures are harmful for children and young people.
"Schools are essential services for children and young people, and support not only their learning, but also their mental health, well-being, relationships, and development. Year 11, 12, and 13 students are increasingly vaccinated, able to tolerate wearing face masks, and physically distance, while on school grounds, which means that the risks of transmission can be mitigated.
"With initial student numbers low, overcrowding is also prevented. Schools are also trusted community hubs that may be able to build bridges to families who have not yet been reached by the vaccine rollout, providing good information to encourage and support vaccination."
More concerns from PPTA
Webber said the announcement also had implications for teachers' workload.
"Teachers will be required to teach both face to face and online and while they will try to do the very best they can, it will be impossible to deliver quality teaching when they're flicking between channels trying to cater for everyone.
"Many teachers are also anxious about how they're going to look after their own children. With strict limits on numbers at childcare services in alert level 3, many teachers may be forced to bring their own little kids to school with them. And we expect primary schools will have a lot more students from next week."
Webber had other concerns - about preventing young people from mingling and exams.
"Our advice was for only NCEA Level 3 external exams to be run in areas currently under level 3 lockdown in order to give those students in their final year of NCEA the opportunity to achieve the best grade and allow exams to run safely.
"Level 1 and 2 NCEA students would receive an unexpected event grade instead of sitting external exams. This would have been the safer option and would have considerably reduced anxiety for many students.
"Indeed, with the increasing nervousness in Auckland around rising case numbers, the fact that students are being required to sit external exams will significantly add to their anxiety levels. But, again, the government seems to have thrown all its Covid-19 caution to the wind."
At the 1pm briefing, Hipkins said: "Children, young people and staff at higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19 should stay at home unless fully vaccinated, face coverings are mandatory for staff and learners in years 9 to 13, and records must be kept for contact tracing purposes. Face coverings on school transport will also be mandatory."
Staff and volunteers working on site in alert level 3 will need a negative test before attending, and staff and volunteers in all regions will need to receive their first vaccine by 15 November.
Hipkins said the government was not ruling out other students returning before Christmas and would consider health advice on Tuesday.