13 Feb 2023

Cyclone Gabrielle: Questions over powers to direct schools to close

10:24 am on 13 February 2023
Downed trees on Riverside Drive in Whangarei.

Downed trees on Riverside Drive in Whangārei. Photo: RNZ/Soumya Bhamidipati

The Secondary Principals' Association's president is questioning why emergency management authorities do not have the powers to direct schools to close.

Schools in the North Island have been given discretion on closing to avoid what is expected to be the worst of Cyclone Gabrielle on Monday and Tuesday.

Secondary Principals' Association president Vaughan Couillault, who is also principal of Papatoetoe High School, told Morning Report most schools erred on the side of caution, but some were forging ahead.

"That's within their mandate if you like ... although the recommendation from the ministry yesterday quite clearly said it was in the best interests of everyone to close," Couillault said.

"Also as soon as that emergency management message got pushed out on everybody's cellphones in Auckland [on Sunday], that was enough for me and my team to say well if the big brains are saying it's probably a bit unsafe, then who are we to argue."

After a few years of Covid-19 restrictions, Auckland schools were again facing disruptions to the start of the school year in early February when they were directed to shut by the secretary of education due to the flooding event.

"You sort of get professional whiplash every time you start and stop and get going again," Couillault said.

"So it is a little bit challenging. However, what Auckland has proved over the last couple of years is that we are able to pivot fairly quickly in terms of education provision and I have confidence in our sector that we'll catch up in time, it's just about making sure everybody's safe at the moment."

While New Zealand benefitted from self-managing schools, Couillault said emergency management authorities should have the power to direct schools to shut in exceptional circumstances such as these.

"My question would be why can't the emergency management authorities make that decision to close schools as opposed just the Secretary for Education, because at the moment, the only person that can direct is the Secretary for Education.

"Whereas in this particular circumstance, it might be prudent that an emergency management organisation has such powers.

"So it's probably more about having a look at what our laws are to see if we can spread those powers to other people ... for situations such as we find ourselves in now."

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