31 Jan 2022

Coping with Omicron: Schools reopening to mask mandates, ventilation issues

7:08 am on 31 January 2022

Many schools and kura across the motu will be starting back for the year today, but it will be unlike anything they have faced before.

students wearing  mask and  studying in the classroom.

All children Year 4 and above have to wear masks indoors. Photo: 123RF

Staff are battling with how to enforce mask mandates and are dealing with a "tsunami of information" on how to cope with Omicron creeping into the community.

Last week, in the heat of the day, children were playing in the local playgrounds at public parks around the country.

This week, they will be confined to the classroom and the school grounds - with all children Year 4 and above having to wear masks indoors.

Children spoken to at Anderson Park in Napier had mixed opinions.

"Not good, 'cause my mask always makes me hot and my face always gets sweaty," Hayden said.

"If it's hot I don't want to wear it but if it's cold, all good, keeps my face warm," Logan said.

Some other children said it was good because it "protects everyone".

For children Year 3 and under, the Ministry of Health said mask wearing was encouraged, but not required.

"The age of the children in this bracket means there are significant compliance challenges when wearing a mask for a sustained period of time," a ministry spokesperson said.

"We ask parents to educate their children about mask wearing to encourage the practice at school.

"It is also important to note that a range of practices are encouraged to further reduce the spread of Covid-19 in schools.

"Schools are asked to open windows doors and vents to support the flow of fresh air, follow good hygiene practices, and ensure parents keep children home from school and get them tested if they have any symptoms that could be Covid-19."

Hora Hora School principal Pat Newman in Whangārei was trying to get his head around the mask mandate.

"Quite bluntly, it's unenforceable," he said.

He said if a child's parents did not want them to wear a mask, teachers were not allowed to insist it be worn.

Backpack of school child with face mask and sanitizer. Student safety after coronavirus pandemic. Virus and disease prevention for kids. Back to school and kindergarten after covid-19 outbreak.

Photo: 123RF

Timely communication a problem

Jason Williams is principal at Henry Hill School in Napier. It is a decile one, predominately Māori primary school.

Although he understood Ministry of Education staff were probably working under the pump, communication had not come at great times.

"At the moment, some of the communication coming through from the Ministry of Education's coming kind of, I guess, what you'd call after-hours. We talk a lot about well-being and hauora, and it's not the greatest getting an email at 7 or 8 o'clock at night and then your school work brain turns back on."

Invercargill has been sheltered from the Covid-19 storm of the north, especially Auckland's experience.

James Hargest College principal Mike Newell said his more than 1800 students will do their best with masks, but it would be a challenge.

"I do feel for my teachers, being in the classroom can be hard enough, but potentially talking through masks and things like that. Also it's going to be challenging for students, in terms of some of the communication."

Education union NZEI president Liam Rutherford said some questions remained unanswered for many of its members.

"They tend to get into some of the nitty gritty around mask use - when, where and who needs to wear them - as well as things like proper ventilation and the extent that opening doors and windows works versus not."

New Zealand Principals Federation president Cherie Taylor-Patel acknowledged it was a stressful and anxious time.

"We've asked the ministry to get senior advisors around the country to ring principals and ask them if there's anything they need to know so they can actually help them navigate this huge tsunami of information."

In a statement, Ministry of Education hautū (leader) for operations and integrations / Te Pae Aronui Sean Teddy said schools and kura were updated through its school bulletin emails.

"We aim to provide the bulletins by 4pm, but sometimes their production takes an hour or two longer. It's important we make sure our advice is accurate and complies with health guidance and relevant legislation and health orders."

He said regional staff were following up with school leaders to answer questions and identify what support they needed.

"We recognise that it is challenging for school and kura leaders to navigate through the changes and updated guidance and advice needed to support and protect their students and staff and keep their communities informed. They are doing a fantastic job."

Vaccination urgency

Canterbury Primary Principals' Association president Sandy Hastings said it was vital more children got vaccinated.

At present 33 percent of eligible 5 to 11-year-olds have had their first Covid-19 vaccine.

However, only 18 percent of eligible Māori and 23 percent of eligible Pasifika tamariki have received a vaccination dose.

Hastings said schools were taking measures to navigate the tricky Omicron virus.

At her school, Beckenham Te Kura o Pūroto, that meant some meetings with parents were staying online.

"We all can see what the worst case scenario could look like and we're doing everything that we can to avoid that," Hastings said.

Six-year-old Hanna (left) receives a plaster after having been inoculated with the Pfizer BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for children at a vaccination centre in Iserlohn, western Germany, on 5 January, 2022.

File pic Photo: Ina Fassbender / AFP

- additional reporting by Soumya Bhamidipati

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