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SocietyApril 19, 2020

Teachers voice concerns around school reopenings under alert level three

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

The country has been asked to prepare for a shift back to alert level three, which will entail the reopening of schools and early childhood education centres. Educators are worried lack of clarity around the reopening of schools could risk student and teacher safety. 

On Thursday, Jacinda Ardern laid out guidelines for a relaxation of lockdown rules as New Zealand prepares to move from alert level four to alert level three. The new level, the timing of which is yet to be determined, would see a range of businesses reopen. It would also see schools return for “voluntary attendance”, said the prime minister. This phrasing concerned many education professionals, who asked whether such a criterion would place an unworkable burden on teachers already strained by the requirements of remote learning systems..

While the earliest possible date for schools to reopen has been set at April 29, the lack of information about what exactly a reopening would look like has left educators puzzled. 

On Friday the Ministry of Education and a selection of education groups, including the NZEI Te Riu Roa and the New Zealand Principals’ Federation (NZPF), entered discussions about how the reopening of schools could best work for all involved, resolving some of the communication issues that had been highlighted in the hours after the initial announcement. 

NZEI Te Rui Roa president Liam Rutherford said he had received more than 1,000 responses from teachers and educators, but was confident about an “ongoing dialogue is going to create opportunities for us to raise health and wellbeing concerns that educators within the profession are rightly going to have”.

Perry Rush, the president of the NZPF, said meetings with the MoE had been reassuring, adding that “the term ‘voluntary attendance’ implies that anybody could go, if you want to. The actual approach is for students who need to attend school, as a consequence of a variety of different reasons.

“I think that’s really important to distinguish because we have to be very careful that we don’t have a situation where students can randomly turn up to school any day of the week. That would make it too hard for schools to plan for adequate staff on site and to coordinate the successful functioning of school communities.”

That message seemed to get through, with advice sent out to schools from the ministry on Friday evening confirming that they would only be open for students who “need” to be there, and there would be a potential restriction of no more than 10 people within school “bubbles”. Teachers say it will be crucial to ensure parents and caregivers are aware of clarified regulations as soon as possible to avoid confusion.

Concern that schools won’t have enough control over the amount of students coming each day are shared by Albany Senior High School principal Claire Amos. She says one of the key messages the government needs to communicate is that parents should not send their children to school if there is another option. 

“If students can stay home they absolutely should, and schools should have a mechanism to have some checks in place to make sure that this really is the last option. We don’t want people suffering in their homes because they can’t go back to work, we need to look after those families but at the same time we don’t want to be the easy option,” she said.

She’s also wary of the potential for teachers’ jobs to get a lot harder if they are trying to educate both in class and remotely.

“What I don’t want to happen is schools under pressure to try and deliver face to face programmes alongside remote ones, I don’t think that’s feasible… we cannot expect schools to be anything other than spaces where they can provide some safe supervision for young people, because it’s only really realistic for teachers to be delivering one mode of education at a time. They’re already under incredible pressure.”

There are concerns, too, that students from small, rural, majority-Māori schools are far less likely to have access to the resources they need for ongoing remote learning. For these students the decision could be going to school, or going without. Educator and researcher Dr Anne Milne told Marae that the traditional “mainstream” education system was never built for Māori, and the move to remote learning has only exacerbated this divide.

“We’ve got all these jigsaw pieces, all these different solutions to do this work online, but the pandemic has moved the picture from the box and what mainstream education doesn’t realise is that our kids were never in that picture, our Māori kids were never on the box and their pieces never did fit … Kids from Ōtara and Mitimiti and all our rural communities and communities where our whanau already struggle, they’re going to be the ones who don’t get the access.”

Finance Minister Grant Robertson speaks to media about schools under level three.

On Friday, finance minister Grant Robertson said the Ministry of Education had made it clear that schools will not be reopening until at least one week after the lifting of level four restrictions is confirmed. He was confident parents would do the right thing to ensure their children’s safety, he said, and the ministry will be working alongside teachers unions and organisations to ensure by the time level three is in place, the regulations around schooling are clearer.

Rush thinks some of these clarifications will begin to emerge in the coming days as the various organisations involved work to give as much time to schools as possible. He said one of the main pieces of information that’s been missing from the discussion so far is the reasoning behind the decision to reopen schools. The lack of information, however, had made it confusing for some educators who simply want to understand the context for the change.

“I am looking forward to the provision of more public health information that provides a clear rationale for the decision taken by the prime minister to invite the return of students up to and including year 10s. I think what has been missing is some of that information that builds the context for the decision being taken,” he said.

Rutherford agrees teachers are keen to see and understand the reasoning behind the decision, so they can ensure the best public health practices when schools reopen.

“People just want to be reassured that a plan is being underpinned by public health information, that’s been really important the whole way along. The key thing is that this work is being driven by the best possible evidence around how to keep people safe.”

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