New Zealand's childcare centres have asked the Government to let them stay closed at level 3 of the coronavirus alert system because of the risk of spreading the virus.
Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds has written to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying that early childhood care involves "intimate interaction" between children and adults so the social distancing required at level 3 is impossible.
"We are taking that position because of the carrier risk of sharing the virus - parents who are moving around, going to work, engaging with others even at safe levels," he said.
"There is too much at stake. The last thing the childcare centres need is to reopen, only to have to shut again five minutes later."
His bombshell statement adds to a mounting backlash from teachers and some parents against Ardern's decision to reopen early childhood services and schools up to Year 10 to care for children whose parents have to return to work at alert level 3.
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She said on Thursday that the number of people back at work at alert level 3 would roughly double to 1 million.
More than 25,000 people have now signed a petition started by Huntly early childhood teacher Hannah Swinkels for all schools and early childhood centres to remain closed at level 3.
She said that if every child in a childcare group of six had four people in their home bubbles, and if their working parents each came into contact with 10 people in their work, and if each of those 10 people also have four people in their home bubbles, then every child in childcare would be exposed to infection from 960 people.
In fact, childcare groups could be much higher. Proposed new rules will allow up to 10 children in each group initially, and up to 20 "once all processes are running smoothly".
The Teaching Council, an independent body governing teacher training and registration, has also taken the rare step of writing to Education Minister Chris Hipkins saying each school and early childhood service should have "the autonomy to determine their own plan for when and how they will safely re-open".
"We ask for a reiteration of a message you gave recently, that it is unlikely all schools and centres will go back at the same time," the council told Hipkins.
It said school principals and early childhood service managers "also need the authority and autonomy to agree to children attending or not".
"This decision-making should not rest entirely with parents and caregivers on a voluntary basis," it said.
So far Ardern and the Ministry of Education have simply stated that early childhood services and schools up to Year 10 "will be physically open for those who need them" at level 3, leaving no apparent option for particular schools or centres to stay closed.
Education Ministry head Iona Holsted said on Saturday: "There are no criteria that dictates who can and cannot send their children to school. Parents and caregivers best understand their own unique situation and needs and will make the right decision about whether their child will keep learning from home or can return to classroom learning in a safe school environment."
But Teaching Council chief executive Lesley Hoskin said schools and early childhood services would need to be able to limit numbers of children, depending on how many teachers are available and how much space they have under new rules requiring at least 3 square metres of indoor space per child during level 3.
Kaye Brunton, principal of decile-3 Ngāti Toa School in Porirua, said eight of her 14 staff had health conditions which weakened their immune systems, and she herself is concerned for her 88-year-old mother who lives with her.
In an article for the Herald, she writes: "Level 3 rules that force some families to put their lives on the line, while others are able to stay spectators from the safety of their bubble, are not equitable."
Reynolds said there were still too many unanswered questions after Ardern first announced that school and early childhood attendance would be "voluntary", only to have that word deleted from the official Covid-19 website a day later.
"The whole thing is just going off half-cocked at the moment, and we are not comfortable with that," he said.
Education Ministry head Iona Holsted said the ministry would work closely with schools and early learning services to make sure they could manage the numbers of children who need to attend.
"Parents and caregivers, like all New Zealanders, know we are in extraordinary times and they will play their part to help keep their children at home, but it is important that schools and early learning centres are physically open for those parents who need them," she said.
"Many schools are already in co-operative arrangements through Kāhui Ako [Communities of Learning], and where these can be used to support responding to the need of children and their families, we would be very supportive of that.
"It has been great to hear from teachers and leaders willing to make early childhood services and schools available to those who need them."