Education Minister Chris Hipkins says he will not be "heavy-handed" if some childcare centres stay closed when they are allowed to reopen next week.
He faced questions at a press conference today after the Early Childhood Council, whose members serve about 65,000 of the 200,000 children in early childhood education, advised its members to stay closed during alert level 3 because of the risk of children spreading Covid-19.
"We are not being too heavy-handed on this," Hipkins said.
"Obviously I do want early learning services to reopen if they can. The arrangements are going to be different, though, because different centres have different child populations, different needs, and they are physically quite different, so the physical layout of centres can be quite different.
"Some are very, very open and some have smaller rooms and spaces that makes preserving bubbles within them more possible. So we are working through that with each centre and I am not going to set a hard and fast rule around that."
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Another early childhood group, Child Forum, has said that most early childhood education (ECE) services are private or community-owned businesses, "so the choice to open or not is the same for most ECE services as it is for any other private business".
Child Forum director Dr Sarah Alexander said the takeup by families in the first week of alert level 3 next week might be quite small, but she expected 70 to 90 per cent of ECE services to be open by the following week.
Hipkins repeated messages from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that the Government wants most children to stay at home during level 3 so that childcare centres and schools can keep children in separate bubbles of no more than 10 children initially, to minimise any risk of spreading the virus.
Although 400,000 more adults are expected to go back to work in level 3, he said that would still leave about 1 million adults at home who could be asked to help look after the children of working parents.
"So even when parents are going back to work, it may be that there are other family arrangements that can be put in place not to need those kids to go back to school, and we certainly encourage that," he said.
"So if you have an aunty or an uncle that can look after your child because they are working from home, that would be a good arrangement."
The director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield cited a World Health Organisation report last month on the Covid-19 outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan to back up his statement yesterday that children "don't pass on the virus to adults".
"That was very clear that, of all the people they interviewed for that report, not one could recall any instance of a child passing infection to an adult," he said.
He said the number of new cases being reported in New Zealand - only five today - was now so low that "the likelihood of someone with Covid-19 going through the school gate in the first place is very, very low".
Hipkins said he had not been advised of a Ministry of Education agreement allowing kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa Māori to stay closed during level 3, and said any early learning service that wanted to stay closed should talk to the ministry.
Many teachers have said that they don't want to work in centres and schools yet because of the health risk to their families. More than 35,000 people have now signed a petition to keep schools and ECE services closed during level 3.
Hipkins said he expected teachers to stay home if they or their family members were at high risk from the virus, and he urged schools and ECE services to be "pragmatic".
"We are going to need people to support students in distance learning, so the pragmatic thing for schools to do is to have those who are at home supporting people in distance learning," he said.
He said schools and ECE services are expected to contact parents this week to find out which children will be returning to their premises, but he did not want principals and centre managers to decide which children can attend.
"I don't want schools to be put in a position of being police around whether or not parents have a good enough reason to send their kid to school," he said.
"If they are concerned that too many of their families are saying 'we are sending the kids to school or early learning', then talk to the Ministry of Education about that."'
He said the ministry would work with schools and centres that had more children than they could cope with under the new social distancing rules, "and it may be that we can share some of that load" around other local schools or centres.
• Level 3 education rules: covid19.govt.nz.