Maybe it was boldness, or ruthlessness, but this week we saw new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins in a new mode, eager to separate himself from Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party and create his own path.
What that path is, remains to be seen. It’s probably easier to say what Hipkins doesn’t stand for than what he does at the moment.
But as the former Education Minister, I hope he applies that same focus to ensure our children have access to uninterrupted education. Something that we as a society used to take for granted, but which has been called into question over the past three years.
To achieve this, the Prime Minister must take a stand on how he proposes our country manages potential disruption going forward.
Last Monday, the Secretary for Education directed schools, kura and early learning services, as well as tertiary organisations, in the Auckland region to close due to the floods.
There are 577 schools across the Auckland region, and a reported 20 of these schools were impacted by the floods. If those 20 schools needed to close because of health and safety, damage to the school grounds or travel to school being unsafe, then closing the school was the right thing to do.
And the principals of those schools should’ve been empowered to make that decision.
Instead, all schools were closed, and principals and parents only heard through the media that all schools would remain closed until Tuesday, February 7.
It was a communication fiasco, principals and parents were blindsided. At our school, the principal had just sent out an email, welcoming all tamariki back to school as planned.
National leader Christopher Luxon was quick to advocate for schools making their own decision, but Hipkins was noticeably missing from the discussion.
Less than 48 hours later, the Ministry of Education did a complete U-turn. Schools were now allowed to open, effective immediately from the next day, Thursday, February 2.
It seems applying the one-size-fits-all approach the Ministry used to deal with the Auckland floods didn’t work and was taken straight out of the 2020 Covid playbook, without much consideration for those impacted.
The Ministry of Education not only caused confusion, but it also prompted some to leave Auckland during the floods – including parents, children and teachers.
Not to mention those teachers who poured their time and energy into preparing for online learning last week, only to have some schools reopen again and those resources go to waste.
So when it was announced that schools could indeed reopen, many were simply not ready to come back.
That meant for many of Auckland’s students, this week instead marked the first week back to school – almost one week later than it should’ve been for many.
As a mother of three, I can speak to the significant impact these disruptions have had on our children over the past three years. They have missed out on more than I can quantify, and I worry about the ongoing impact this approach has on all our children across Tāmaki Makaurau.
I also see the mental load of parents, employees and employers trying to juggle work, as well as the constant disruption to our children’s education. I’ve had friends in tears, at their wit’s end having to reorganise their week with children and work.
In addition, we should all be concerned about how much school, social interaction and support our tamariki in Auckland have missed out on in the past three years. And the significant consequence this has for our most vulnerable and at-risk communities.
This year, 2023, was meant to be different. Aucklanders were hoping for a fresh start for our tamariki. An opportunity for them to get back into a solid routine and forge ahead with their education.
Instead, we were faced with more closures and uncertainty. The rate decision-making in New Zealand is going, it seems as if uncertainty is the only thing we can actually be certain of.
Three years ago, it would have been unthinkable to close all schools and delay start dates without careful consideration and planning. Now, it is simply standard practice, the default position we lean into when we are unsure.
But the truth is this cannot continue. We have to stop gambling with our children’s education and wellbeing.
Because it’s not only the education for our children that is suffering. These constant closures have a significant impact on parents, caregivers and employers who are expected to sort childcare and reorganise their workforce at the drop of a hat. And, in this case, deal with the aftermath of the floods. Schools are a lifeline for many Kiwi families. They know their community, they know how their students get to and from school, and the safety of students is their utmost priority. They are best placed to make the decision about whether they should stay open or not.
If Hipkins wants to be successful in his role as Prime Minister, he needs to ensure that he takes a firm stand on what type of Prime Minister he intends to be. He needs to decide whether he trusts the decision-making of the schools to lead their communities, and only use extreme measures when absolutely necessary.
But as we stare down the barrel of what is likely to be another significant rain event next week, should parents this week brace for more closures? Or will they once again get a last-minute decision and more flip-flopping?
Tell us please Prime Minister, what is the plan for our tamariki?
• Cecilia Robinson is the founder and co-CEO at Tend, a primary healthcare provider offering GP services online and in-clinic.