With Omicron on our shores and predictions of up to 50,000 cases a day, public health experts suggest face masks will play a pivotal role in ensuring schools remain open.
Face coverings for every student in Year 4 and above is mandatory under the red traffic light setting.
Kerikeri Endocrinologist, Dr Nitasha Rimar says it will be a high risk if parents, students, and teachers do not adhere to the Government's tighter rules around mask use in schools.
"It will perhaps be a bumpy road at first, but it is very important that students become comfortable with wearing masks.
"I suspect, as the case counts climb significantly over the next few weeks, both children and their parents are going to become motivated to maintain adherence as they start knowing people who get sick."
Rimar said although children were less likely to develop a severe illness due to Covid-19, it was important to know they could still become infected and transmit the virus, similar to adults.
They could also develop "long Covid", with persistent symptoms, she said.
Ministry of Health defines long Covid as signs and symptoms that continue or develop after acute Covid-19.
Some people who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 report a diverse range of symptoms beyond the time of "recovery" from the acute phase of Covid-19 illness. Protracted symptoms are common following many viral and bacterial infections, including other coronaviruses.
Rimar recommended a mask with higher filtration capacity over cloth masks, because cloth masks don't work very well against Omicron.
"Optimally, parents want to find a mask with improved filtration, snugger fit, and the most comfort that can ensure the child is able to wear it. This will help ensure children, and their peers, remain healthy and in school. However, a cloth mask is better than no mask.
"Unfortunately, masks will become a part of what we wear every day for a while, similar to a sunhat or a pair of socks or a jumper.
"Children will get comfortable with wearing it over time."
Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker also backed the use of face masks by children in schools and said the Government should have required mask use from Year 1 and even preschool settings.
"[Masks are very important] ... particularly for young children and preschool children, they are either not vaccinated or have low vaccine coverage."
Baker said Omicron would be across New Zealand in the next few weeks with a very intense outbreak wave and a high proportion of children won't be fully vaccinated by the time they are exposed to the virus.
"Preschool children won't be vaccinated at all.
"Obviously, one key measure is people staying home if they are sick and teachers getting vaccinated, but that won't fully protect children because a lot will get asymptomatic infection. They'll still be able to infect other people.
"The scenario is there will be a lot of transmission in schools and the kids will take the virus home and infect parents. And, you may have multi-generational households with older, more vulnerable people.
"Even if some parents are working from home and taking a lot of precautions, everyone wants their kids to go back to school, so schools will be an important transmission setting.
"Mask use is one of the few barriers."
Of the 19,480 children between the ages 5 and 11 in Northland, 10 per cent (1944) have had their first dose of the child Pfizer vaccine since the rollout began on January 17.
All DHB vaccination sites are providing paediatric doses. Four Māori health providers - Te Hiku Hauora, Te Hau Ora O Ngāpuhi, Ki A Ora Ngātiwai, and Ngāti Hine Health Trust - started offering the child Pfizer vaccine this week, while most other Māori health providers start next week.
Baker described making a child wear a mask in the same way as getting them to wear sunhats.
"It just becomes a norm.
"Kids are quite good at it – if the whole class is wearing masks, and they get good instruction on it, the experience suggests they are good wearing masks, even better than adults sometimes.
"There are many problems with mask-wearing but it also applies to other age groups where people do funny things with their masks, they are not just unique to children."
Baker said experience with hand washing proved children were better hand-washers than parents, and at cough hygiene, because they were taught these things which became a routine.
"We underestimate children when it comes to taking hygiene measures, but after all, these will be important life skills and this is the time to be teaching them, at school."
Here are some tips from Baker on how to ensure kids get into the habit of mask-wearing:
- Parents should set a good example, so mask use becomes a new family norm.
- Make sure kids are supplied with good quality masks and a routine with masks.
And a place for the masks to dry. It could be something like a different mask for every day of the week, just like your socks. They may even put the day of the week on each mask and so minimise the transmission. The virus does not survive for that long till you go back to repeating the first mask.
- Have a system to make it easy for you and the kids
If you have several children, make a wrap for each kid and hang their masks with their initials.
- Keep a fresh mask in the backpack, just in case the other one is soiled or lost