The Government is poised to provide home internet and laptop or tablet devices for about 70,000 schoolchildren in the event that schools have to close due to coronavirus.
It is developing a behind the scenes plan for the emergency rollout and has this week surveyed all schools about whether teachers can provide online learning from home, and how many students need devices at home.
In a leaked email obtained by the Herald, the Ministry of Education's chief digital officer Stuart Wakefield says the ministry is:
• "Working with the telco industry on rapid deployment options for students without internet at home."
• "Working across government to prioritise demand for laptop and tablet devices in a situation of potentially extended supply chain constraints."
• Launching two new websites, learningfromhome.govt.nz in English and Ki Te Ao Mārama in te reo Māori, for students, parents and teachers from preschool to secondary level "so they can get ready to support learning from home".
In a statement to the Herald today, Wakefield said the ministry was still "establishing the costs and availability of these options ahead of any decision on funding".
"At this time there is no reason for schools to close. However, we have been planning for various scenarios including the temporary closure of a school and as part of that planning will be working with schools to explore all available options," he said.
"In addition we are assembling some take-home kits with books and resources for children and young people who may not be able to access online resources from their home."
Although so far there have only been short-term closures of particular schools where students or staff have tested positive for coronavirus, the signs are that the Government may soon follow other countries in imposing full-scale school shutdowns.
Unesco says 107 countries have now closed all their schools and a further 12 countries have implemented localised closures. Australia and New Zealand now stand out on the world map as unusual in keeping all schools open.
The Government has received a copy of an influential scientific model by British researchers showing that the only way to avoid mass deaths from coronavirus, unless it can be contained at the border, is "suppressing" the virus through minimising physical contact, including closing schools.
Schools in Dunedin, Auckland, Invercargill, Kerikeri and Hamilton have all been affected this week by students or students' parents with coronavirus. Auckland University has also confirmed that a number of students have been tested, but all have proved negative so far.
One AUT University class has been told that its lectures will move online next week, but AUT has denied that it has decided to move all classes online. Schools and universities are exempt from the new ban on indoor gatherings of more than 100 people announced today.
Otago University public health professor Michael Baker has been saying for the last few days that schools should be closed, perhaps by bringing forward the Easter school holidays, while much wider testing of anyone at risk is ramped up.
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The Education Ministry has rung all schools this week asking whether their teachers can provide online learning from home, how many students would not be able to access a device at home to do online learning, and whether schools could lend them devices to take home if the school closed.
A ministry spokeswoman said the last responses were received from schools last night and the ministry was now analysing the data.
Schools are already preparing to go online. Long Bay College has become the second school, after Melville High School, to announce a teacher-only day this coming Monday to prepare staff and systems for online teaching.
A trustee of the 20/20 Trust, which runs the Computers in Homes scheme for low-income families, Laurence Millar, said the 2018 Census found that 20 per cent of NZ households did not have internet access.
Many of these were likely to be elderly people, but he estimated they included about 25,000 to 30,000 families with 70,000 to 80,000 school-aged children.
He said those with cellphone coverage could be quickly linked to the internet through the Skinny Jump programme, a non-profit initiative involving the Spark Foundation and a network of local community groups which provides 30GB of data for a pre-paid charge of $5 at a time, currently to 5000 families with 9000 school-aged children.
"That will only work for 10,000 to 15,000 of the 70,000 kids," he said.
For the rest, it would cost perhaps $25 million for the Government to fund fibre installations to 25,000 families at $1000 apiece, he said.
Students without suitable devices at home could borrow school devices for the duration of the school closures, he said. Wakefield's email indicates that the Government will fund schools to buy more if they don't have enough.
The most expensive part of the programme might be funding the ongoing costs of internet service for families at perhaps $60-$80 a month. Millar said the Government might do that while schools were closed, but it would raise equity issues if it continued for a long time.
"Once the Government is providing free internet for 20 per cent of the population, what about the 21st percentile and the 22nd percentile?" he asked.
"To me, the long-term answer is free internet for everyone in New Zealand. You can drive on the roads for free. But that is a big policy leap from where we are at the moment."