Covid-19 actually kept more rich kids in school than usual, while scaring poorer kids away.
A new Ministry of Education analysis shows that a four-year decline in school attendance rates since 2015 has been reversed this year, with a sharp jump in attendance after the March-April national lockdown and slightly higher attendance rates for most of the year since then.
Fewer students were sick, possibly due to the sharp drop in flu infections this year because of Covid-19 social distancing measures, and wealthier families stopped taking overseas holidays.
But the second lockdown in August, which affected only Auckland and was concentrated in the Pacific community, caused a steep drop in attendance for a month after the lockdown by Pacific, Māori and low-decile students.
"This is strong evidence that Covid-19 is exacerbating inequity in ways that have the potential to flow on to other outcomes, such as learning and broader wellbeing," the ministry warns.
Surprisingly, the data shows that attendance actually increased, even in Auckland after the August lockdown, for students in Years 11 to 13 who faced looming national exams - indicating that only a few senior students left school to get jobs after family members were made redundant.
Only 5071 students have left school during this year in Auckland, down 38 per cent from the same period last year, and 14,976 left school outside Auckland, down 21 per cent.
Nationally the biggest declines were in students leaving to go overseas (down 55 per cent), followed by those leaving to go into further education (down 33 per cent) and those leaving to go into employment (down 19 per cent).
In a global pandemic, for most students, school was evidently the safest place to be.
But in contrast, the biggest declines in school attendance were for the youngest children, especially in Years 1 and 2 where parents were afraid to send children back to school especially in Auckland after the August lockdown.
The same pattern affected early childhood education (ECE). By the last two weeks in September, a month after the August lockdown, Auckland ECE attendance was still 8 per cent below the same time last year for under-3-year-olds and 6 per cent down for 3- and 4-year-olds.
Both ECE and schools showed clear ethnic divides.
In ECE, Auckland attendance in the last two weeks in September was down 13 per cent from the year before for Pacific children and down 8 per cent for Māori, but down only 4 per cent for European and Asian children.
In schools, 4 per cent of Pacific students, 3.5 per cent of Māori, 0.7 per cent of Asians and 0.3 per cent of European students had still not returned to school by September 25 in Auckland.
A third (31 per cent) of Auckland's Pacific school students and a quarter of Māori (24 per cent) missed at least 30 per cent of school days in the first month after the August lockdown - in both cases much worse than in the same period in 2019.
In contrast, European school attendance in Auckland actually increased after the August lockdown compared with the same time last year, apparently due to factors such as concerns about exams, fewer illnesses and the border closure preventing overseas holidays.
These ethnic patterns flowed through into decile data because of the concentration of Pacific and Māori students in low-decile schools.
More than a third of students in Auckland decile 1-2 schools were absent for more than 30 per cent of the month after the August lockdown - almost twice as high as in the same period last year. But attendance actually improved after the lockdown, compared with the same period last year, in decile 9-10 schools.
"This is strong evidence that, when it comes to attendance, the negative effects of Covid-19 are concentrated in communities that were already the most socioeconomically disadvantaged, and where the largest barriers to attendance were present before the pandemic," the ministry says.
"Some factors that might lead to increased barriers to attendance in students experiencing poverty might include: lack of access to devices or connectivity, ruling out remote learning; insecure housing situations; a greater reliance on public transport, which may be perceived as less safe; lack of funds for uniforms or learning materials, creating stigma about attending school; and the increased likelihood of health issues that create greater risk of being harmed by Covid-19."