Absenteeism is rampant at some Northland schools, in some cases reportedly running at 30 per cent, and mixed messages on Covid-19 are getting the blame.
Te Tai Tokerau Principals' Association is urging parents and students to talk to their schools in terms of messages around Covid, rather than relying on politicians and social media, apparently not believing that school is a safe place for their children.
Whangārei Intermediate School has struck six students off its roll since the end of May, as the law requires after 20 consecutive days' absence without a valid explanation, and as of last week had not enrolled at other schools.
"A lot of them are absent on Fridays and Mondays, but there are also some who won't return until we are down to level zero, which is not going to happen," a spokeswoman said.
"Quite a few are getting mixed messages, not from politicians, but social media, and we explain to them that what they read on social media is not correct and that school is a safe place to come to.
"Some students can miss out on a year of learning, and that can never be caught up with. There's also the social interaction with their peers and the forming, developing and maintaining of friendships that gets lost when they don't come to school."
TTPA president Pat Newman said the Northland community was getting so many different messages around Covid from politicians and others that parents were worried about their children's safety.
"There's been a big drop in attendance. A lot of schools are running at 70 per cent because there's a hell of a lot of stress out there. I hope the bloody idiots who are spreading lies and innuendo realise the harm they are doing," he said.
"One minute people are told to wear a mask, and the other minute they are told not to, and they become worried for their kids. The teachers make sure children are safe, and they reassure parents so they don't become worried."
Newman added that "not a huge number" of parents had resorted to home-schooling their children, as there was a process to follow, including showing the programmes offered at home were on par with those taught in schools.
Kāeo Primary School principal Paul Barker said some students had been reluctant to returning to school after the first lockdown, but the situation had improved.
"We gave them a couple of weeks before we started chasing them, which helped. I got in my car a few times and knocked on doors and said time to go back to school," he said.
"A few used Covid as an excuse, but no one is staying away at the moment since we provided good information and assured the community that it's safe to send their children to school," Barker said.
Ministry of Education deputy secretary sector engagement and support, Katrina Casey, said Covid had further impacted on school attendance, which had been dropping over the years. The ministry had initiated an attendance and engagement plan in May to support the wellbeing and mental health of all children and young people, and help them return to education following the Covid containment period.
The plan included home visits and phone calls, in the appropriate language, and in some regions the ministry was supporting principals to broker the most culturally appropriate connect for the family to assist in encouraging return to school.
Northland had been given $2.9 million in this year's Budget to support student attendance and engagement post-lockdown.
"We know that many children were looking forward to going back to school, and it's the best place for them," Casey said.
"It is crucial for their learning and their wellbeing that they do return to school. It is safe for them to do so.
"While we understand that some parents may be anxious about having their children physically at school, principals have taken extra care to ensure that all advice from public health officials is implemented."