10 Nov 2021

School's (almost) back: 'The ongoing restrictions have been incredibly hard on children'

9:04 pm on 10 November 2021

After three months at home, Auckland students will be allowed back in the school gates next week.

Exam with uniform school student doing educational test with stress in classroom.16:9 style

Photo: 123RF

But many primary and intermediate schools will only open part-time to minimise the Covid risk.

The government says with safety measures in place, the benefits of children returning outweighs the risk of spreading Covid-19.

It's been three months since intermediate student Julia has been at school. She's excited to go back.

"It feels like a million years ago," she told RNZ.

Real school is a lot better than the one over the computer, she said.

"I find it easier to learn things in physical school, because you're not sitting at a desk all day, on your butt all day, and it's boring.

"Meanwhile at actual school you're experiencing things with other kids, other people."

Her mum Rachel said her children learning from home hasn't been particularly easy for anyone in the family.

"Hit or miss. It's a struggle when you have two working parents and try to find a way to balance helping your kids with school and also your work."

She's happy they're able to go back.

"I think they miss their friends, their teachers, being in a classroom, so anything we can do to get them back there safely is fine with us."

Jean Batten primary school principal Nardi Leonard told Checkpoint she's excited and nervous for Monday.

The school in Auckland's Māngere East has 400 students and will have some outdoor classes under shaded areas.

About a quarter of the students are expected to return.

For the rest of 2021, the school will support at-home learning as well, she said.

"Quietly, I'm okay with not everyone returning because that means we've got enough space at school."

There is only one teacher not vaccinated at the school and that is because she is awaiting a surgery and couldn't, Leonard said. The teacher wouldn't be back this term because of the surgery, she said.

She said ensuring the school was a safe environment for its community was important and they would be "cautious".

Leonard said she was happy the minister was trusting schools to know what's best for their community.

"Let's navigate this together...we're navigators historically."

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the call to reopen schools was made in part for people's wellbeing, rather than solely educational purposes.

"The ongoing restrictions have been incredibly hard on children and young people and their families as well. Returning to school, interacting with their friends and their teachers, and getting back to face-to-face learning will have a positive impact on their wellbeing as well as their learning, as they head towards the Christmas break."

Students returning is safe, he said, as long as there are safeguards.

"Public health advice supports a return to on-site learning," Hipkins said.

"Some further measures do need to be put in place... that includes mask wearing for year four and up, ventilating classrooms, which will become a lot easier over the summer break, limiting the number of students on site, and making sure that groups of children distance from each other."

Years nine and 10 - who are over 12 years old and can be vaccinated - can go back to school full-time, to join up with senior high school students who are already back.

But years one to eight will only return part-time, with a limit on the number of students allowed on site at once.

A return to school was what the National Party wanted. Education spokesperson Paul Goldsmith made their schools announcement a few hours before the government's update.

"There are always risks in returning to school. We think the risks of not returning are greater, because of the risk of disengagement and the fact if they don't go back before the end of the year it'll be five months that kids have had out of the classroom. When you're an 8-year-old, that's a lifetime."

It'll be up to primary schools on how they limit student numbers, but Hipkins suggested different groups could attend on alternating days.

Auckland Primary Principals Association president Stephen Lethbridge said it'll be up to the individual school to decide how they'll manage that, which is a good thing.

"In the Auckland region Covid is in the community, so it's all about managing the risks... There are a whole lot of ideas and thoughts out there, and I think what the minister's given us is the flexibility to be able to take [the decision] for our own communities."

By this coming Monday, before these students are back, all teachers wanting to continue teaching will have to have had at least one dose of the vaccine.

Hipkins said this reduces the risk even more.

"So what's clear is that the risks of reopening schools are outweighed by the benefits of kids re-engaging in their learning in a face-to-face context."

So the countdown's on - only four more days of online school for Auckland children.

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