Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

SocietyApril 29, 2020

Covid-19: It’s back to school in NZ today – but how many children are going?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Under alert level three, school doors are open to students up to Year 10 who need to attend. Initial signs are that only a trickle are heading through the gates.

Five weeks after they closed their doors as New Zealand went into the strict lockdown of alert level four, schools across the country are reopening to students today – but only up to Year 10, and only for those who need to attend.

After at first describing attendance as “voluntary” when the rules for alert level three were laid out on April 16, the government quickly responded to pushback from schools and changed the language to emphasise “need”, with the directive that “all children and young people who can stay at home should stay at home”. That appears to have worked, with the vast majority of students remaining at home today.

At her post-cabinet press conference yesterday, Jacinda Ardern said “initial signs are that we’re expecting a very, very small number to return to schools”.

A “snapshot” from the Ministry of Education, captured yesterday afternoon, estimated that the total expected number of students across schools and early childhood centres at 42,853. “This is comprised of 4% of the national school roll and 7% of the national early learning services roll,” a spokesperson said.

Across the country, 5% of students were returning to school, said the ministry.

The highest expected attendance rates for schools was in Auckland, at 5%, and the Nelson/Marlborough/West Coast region, at 6%, and the lowest in Bay of Plenty/Waiariki (2%)

The highest expected attendance for ECE was in Auckland and the Taranaki/Whanganui/Manawatu region, at 9%, and the lowest in Tai Tokerau, where only 2% of children were expected.

Schools are operating their own “bubbles”, with no bubble to contain more than 10 students.

A survey of schools by the Principals Federation found that of 650 that responded, the average attendance would be 6%, with as many as 16% of schools – roughly one in every six – not reopening at all.

“Low was expected, but I think this degree of low certainly came as a surprise,” the president of the Principals Federation, Perry Rush told RNZ. “Parents have taken the prime minister’s encouragement to keep children at home at this time seriously.”

He added: “Over the past week and particularly yesterday, on teacher-only day, teachers have been meeting and going through the fine detail with regards to their health and safety plans. Principals and teachers wouldn’t be heading back if there weren’t established processes and routines at this time.”

The Spinoff conducted a survey of its own – albeit more modest, contacting principals at a bunch of primary schools across the county and across deciles. Across the 20 we heard back from, the average was a smidgen over 4% expected attendance. There was no obvious difference between regions, size of school or decile.

“We have started with two bubble classes, each has a teacher and learning assistant,” Viki Holley, principal at Onehunga Primary School in Auckland, told The Spinoff this morning. “One bubble has eight, the other has six children in it.” The school has an overall roll of 460.

“We are prepared to start more bubbles as time goes on and more businesses open.”

Stephen Lethbridge, principal of Point Chevalier School, also in Auckland, said that earlier in the week they had been expecting 18 students, but by 9am this morning that number had dropped to eight. They had not had any unexpected walk-ups.

In his capacity as president of the Auckland Primary Principals’ Association, Lethbridge said: “We anticipate gradual increases in the coming weeks. There are varying numbers of students returning to school across the Auckland Region. Some schools will not open today as they have no children returning.”

He added: “Each school must comply with public health guidelines. It is important that we know in advance how many children to expect. Schools are responding to the needs of their communities but do need some notice to be able to cater for the numbers arriving at school.”

Some principals and teachers told The Spinoff they had needed to gently remind a few parents that school was only for those who had no reasonable alternative, or that parents had originally registered their children to return, only to change their mind when they learned how few were going back. Some said they expected numbers to rise as parents returned to work.

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