The difficulty of plugging staffing gaps during the Omicron outbreak has seen a Whangārei principal whip out his whistle and take on PE lessons.
As the highly transmissible variant spread across Northland, schools weren't spared as students and staff were absent at varying times, making teaching and learning a challenge.
However, Ministry of Education data shows the region may have fared better than our national counterparts as Northland had the lowest reported Covid-19 case numbers in schools.
In Northland, 944 cases – 842 students and 96 teachers - were notified to the ministry by 34 schools and 40 early learning services.
In the 10 days to April 14, 23 per cent of Northland's 151 schools and 18 per cent of the region's 223 Early Learning Services (ELS) notified the ministry about Covid-19 cases.
Those figures were well below the national average of 65 per cent for schools and 37 per cent for ELS reported to the ministry for that time period.
When Northland recorded 931 new Covid cases over a two-day period on April 13 and 14, only 17 of those were reported within one school and nine ELS.
Sean Teddy, Hautū (Leader) Operations and Integration/Te Pae Aronui from MoE, said the case reporting provided a unique school count, not a case count.
"There may be multiple active cases in a school or ELS," he said.
Epidemiologist Michael Baker queried whether reporting may be playing a role in the low Covid cases numbers recorded in Northland schools.
"In general, you would expect the cases reported by schools to reflect the general numbers in the population," Baker said.
"When you look at numbers, you have to consider factors such as reporting. If the numbers [in Northland schools and ELS] are valid, then it seems to be out of line with what is happening with the population in the country."
Baker said the infection rate in schools is what drives the community rate and vice-versa.
"In fact, one view is there is quite a bit of transmission at school. That is how the virus is transmitted to one household through another, partly because school students are less vaccinated."
Hautu (leader), Te Tai Raro (Acting) Hira Gage from the Ministry of Education said information regarding Covid-19 cases was voluntary from schools and ELS. However, it was recommended to allow regional offices the opportunity to modify support offered based on the information captured.
Schools and ELS also relied on caregivers to report when their child had tested positive.
Gage said both school and early childhood sectors implemented recommended health and safety measures well in their overall management of the Omicron outbreak.
"The Tai Tokerau education community has linked closely with the Ministry's regional office to manage and report cases, and has generally done an excellent job of maintaining continuity of education provision during the Omicron outbreak."
He said the school-reported cases followed a similar pattern to new community cases - a peak in early March followed by a steady decline from mid-March.
Secondary Principals Association Northland representative Alec Solomon said schools have done their best to keep track of case numbers.
The Tikipunga High School principal credited the low impact of Covid cases to a balance between "good management" and "good luck".
"It has hit our seniors really hard really early. It locked out an entire year group because they tested positive, but because they were impacted early they have come back.
"I have no doubt there is some anxiety from some whānau about having children in schools, and that is right across the region," Solomon said.
"Our message to parents is we are open to learning and they have been letting us know when their kids are testing positive. "
The situation was easier to manage as students were away "en masse" and returned "en masse", Solomon said.
Staff members at his school had collectively rolled up their sleeves and taken up different roles to make sure Tikipunga High was open for learning. Solomon himself began teaching PE.
"The teachers have done an amazing job, but it has been challenging. For argument's sake, you are isolated for a week and when you come back another person is absent. We have never had the level of differentiation between teaching and learning," Solomon said.
The school took a philosophical stance to stay open, he said - "kanohi ki te kanohi" [face to face] if possible and without rostering students home.
However, a regional shortage of teachers and a "very finite pool" of relievers added to the complexities of keeping schools open.
"Ministry of Education representatives in Whangārei did an amazing job and were hand-delivering RATs to schools," Solomon said.
"And for us, without those RATs, we simply wouldn't have been able to stay open to learning."
Public Health Medicine Specialist Dr Ankush Mittal, Ngā Tai Ora - Public Health Northland, said understanding the impact of the Omicron outbreak on schools would become easier over time.
At the moment, different parts of the country were in different stages of the outbreak, making an overview difficult.
"So far Northland has seen relatively fewer reported Covid-19 cases than the wider Northern region, but we note that case rates in our area are now higher than the Northern region so some of the differences seen may change over time."