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The BulletinOctober 12, 2021

When can Auckland schools finally reopen?

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(Image / Getty)

Along with a new vaccination mandate for teachers, public health experts say a work programme will be needed to make schools safer during the delta outbreak, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

A change of plans for schools. All teachers will be required to receive their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccination by next month after the government confirmed yesterday that it will be creating a new mandate to cover the education sector. It’s an unprecedented expansion of vaccination requirements beyond border and medical staff, but Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said it was necessary to protect children under the age of 12 who currently can’t be vaccinated. “It’s not an easy decision, but we need the people who work with vulnerable communities who haven’t yet been vaccinated to take this extra step,” he said.

While the decision might soothe anxious parents, the government’s plan to resume schooling in Auckland next Monday has been paused after the prime minister said the risk posed by the current delta outbreak is too high.

Some teachers are bound to lose their jobs as a result. As Stuff reports, the new vaccination mandate will require all staff who have contact with children and students to be fully vaccinated by New Year’s Day. Educators not fully vaccinated before January 1 will be required to show weekly negative tests. A similar mandate has been extended to cover all healthcare workers in high-risk jobs, including GPs, pharmacists, community healthcare nurses, midwives and paramedics. They must be fully vaccinated by December 1. Both mandates will cover hundreds of thousands of workers, many of whom are already vaccinated. Main education union NZEI says it supports the move.

The current state of the pandemic. Jacinda Ardern said yesterday that the country is now in one of the “most challenging moments” of the pandemic, with Auckland, Northland and parts of Waikato all remaining under some form of lockdown. The R number, representing the number of people an infected person passes the virus to, is now above one and climbing. Over 17% of cases in the current outbreak were in children under the age of nine and as immunologist Dianne Sika-Paotonu told the Science Media Centre, delta poses a more significant risk for children:

“Infection patterns indicate that children and young people are more susceptible to the delta variant of the Covid virus when compared with the original strain. Although more likely to have mild or asymptomatic disease, children can still catch the virus and become sick, they can still end up with long Covid-19, and for children and youth with underlying medical conditions, they are at higher risk of serious illness and hospitalisation.”

What will it require to reopen schools in Auckland? With the outbreak growing, schools in the country’s largest city won’t be able to reopen until “robust safety measures” are in place, the prime minister said, according to RNZ. What those measures might be is under review. However a number of epidemiologists from the University of Otago have set out what they expect will be required along with the new vaccination mandate: An intensive programme to increase vaccinations among student families; an emphasis on ventilation, including outdoor classrooms; staggered break times to increase social distancing; more mask wearing; and a clearer plan to deal with an outbreak at school. Funding might also be required from the government to install indoor air monitoring in classrooms. All together, it’s a significant programme of work that mirrors some of the wider efforts to get Auckland out of level three.

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