A veteran early childhood education leader has slammed the Government for adopting a "level 3 lite" in new instructions saying parents can judge whether they need to send their children to school or childcare.
Ministry of Education bulletins sent to schools and early childhood services on Monday said: "It is the parent's judgment as to whether or not their child needs to be physically at school/early learning, generally because the parent has to go to work and/or the child is not safe at home. Every school/service must accept those children and ensure they are supervised on site."
Linda Petrenko, who owns the Small Kauri early childhood centre in Māngere Bridge, said the new message was inconsistent with the official Covid-19 advice that: "At Alert Level 3, children and young people should learn from home. Any child who can't be supervised at home by an appropriate person can attend their service or school."
"We are taking a considerably bigger risk at level 3 now than we were at level 3 at the beginning of Covid," she said.
"Level 3 is no longer level 3. Level 3 is now level 3 lite, or level 2.5."
Petrenko said she advised parents in all previous periods of level 3 restrictions that Small Kauri would open only for children of "essential workers", in line with the definition of level 3 when the country first went into level 3 on March 23 last year.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced then that at alert level 3, "schools will only open for children of essential workers".
"They will close completely when we move to level 4," she said.
When she announced the move back down to level 3 on April 16, Ardern said schools would be open but "attendance is purely voluntary".
Two days later the Principals' Federation said it was "not a voluntary return to school" because children should stay home if they could.
The Ministry of Education's latest bulletins say: "There is no such thing as an "essential service/business" at alert level 3 (only at alert level 4). At alert level 3 a large range of businesses and services are operating (including schools and early learning services) which means that parents and caregivers may be required to go to work."
Yet the same bulletin says further down: "Ministry school bus services will continue to operate in Auckland for children of essential workers."
Petrenko said schools and early learning centres were simply being asked to provide childcare so that their parents could work.
"I just question the whole idea of the analysis of the risk of Covid-19 in the community when you can go out and buy fast food and it has to be contactless, however children and teachers are being put together so that you can go and buy fast food," she said.
"I know business has to go on, I understand that, but I am very concerned that if this [virus] is actually a dangerous thing, children and teachers are collateral damage."
Small Kauri remained closed in last year's second and third Auckland level-3 lockdowns from April 28 to May 13 and from August 12-30, and again in last month's three-day lockdown from February 15-17.
"For us, there was only one child who wanted to come, and that was not going to be appropriate for them to be in an early childhood centre by themselves," she said.
But this week she has opened the centre because of the new ministry advice, and three children are attending.
Ministry data shows that Auckland-wide early childhood education (ECE) attendance increased slightly from an average of 15.3 per cent of enrolled children in the last two weeks of the August level-3 lockdown to 18.2 per cent from February 15-17.
Auckland school attendance doubled from 2.7 per cent in August to 5.8 per cent from February 15-17.
Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said the first 137 returns from a survey of Auckland childcare centres this week show that 106 (76 per cent) are open.
Most of those that are open (90) have fewer than a quarter of their enrolled children attending, but 13 have between a quarter and half, and three have more than half, of their children.
Auckland Primary Principals Association president Stephen Lethbridge said a similar survey of more than 250 Auckland primary schools found that numbers attending this week are up by three or four at some schools, or by 10 to 15 at other schools, since the February 15-17 level-3 lockdown.
But no school has more than 33 children attending.
"We are talking slight increases," he said.
"There may be confusion because the media and other people have referred to 'essential workers', but the message from the Ministry of Education is in line with the Ministry of Health guidelines. There is definitely no miscommunication from my perspective."
Ministry of Education deputy secretary Katrina Casey said ministry advice on alert levels "has remained consistent since we began sending out Covid-related bulletins to ECE and schools in late January 2020".
"To reiterate, at alert level 3 a large range of businesses and services are operating (including early learning services and schools) which means that parents and caregivers may be required to go to work, rather than work from or stay at home," she said.
"Any child who can't be supervised at home by an appropriate person, needs to be able to attend an ECE or school. It is safe for children and staff to attend ECE and schools as there will be appropriate public health measures in place.
"Alert level 3 school buses operate as normal for those children who need to attend school. Ministry of Health guidelines are clear that school buses are considered a controlled environment with known passenger lists where immediate contact tracing can take place if required, and there are appropriate hygiene measures in place to ensure the safety of children."