Kerikeri Primary School usually has a roll of 497. Now it's a normal day if 17 kids — just over three per cent — turn up for lessons.

Under Covid-19 alert level 3 schools across the North are open up to Year 10, but only for the children of essential workers, with all other students required to continue distance learning from home.

Even for the children who have gone back to school it's a very different world to the one they left just a few weeks ago.

That isn't lost on 10-year-old Olivia Livingston, who's well aware she's living in unprecedented times.

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Learning in the Covid-19 lockdown was ''inspiring,' the Year 6 pupil said.

''One day there will be kids studying what we're doing now.''

Kerikeri Primary principal Sarah Brown said the 17 students at school on Wednesday were the children of nurses, supermarket workers, food producers, teachers, orchard staff and other essential workers. The exact number varied from day to day, because some parents worked part-time.

They were split into bubbles of about 10 children of mixed year levels, from new entrants to Year 6, to make sure siblings stayed in the same bubble.

Even within their bubbles the students were required to stay one metre apart inside and two metres outside. All had their own tray of pens and colouring pencils, and even their own skipping rope, so they didn't need to share objects.

Student bubbles took their breaks at different times and used different play areas. Playground equipment had been taped off because the virus could be transmitted via hard surfaces.

Sticking to social distancing was hard for children, Ms Brown said.

''We just have to keep giving gentle reminders throughout the day, but the kids have been amazing and their parents have prepped them well. They've been told life will be different, that you can't just go up and cuddle a teacher and you have to keep to your own space in the classroom.''

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The children at school followed the same distance learning programme as their classmates at home but with extra activities. On Tuesday, for example, they all made Mother's Day cards.

''You don't want them on devices all day, and if they were home they'd be getting some variety too, like home baking. They've also been doing a school-wide science challenge and building some phenomenal marble runs at home.''

The 17 pupils at school on Wednesday were almost matched by 10 staff.

Preparations for level 3, including health and safety procedures and working out how to staff the bubbles, had been ''pretty full-on'' but the new reality was working well.

''It'll be interesting moving to level 2 and seeing what that means,'' Ms Brown said.