The Ministry of Education is rejecting claims that it has relaxed the alert level 3 rules to allow more children to return to early childhood education centres.
The largest early learning organisation in the country says the ministry's advice for the current level 3 period in Auckland had changed from the previous time New Zealand was at the same alert level in April.
"It is a bit looser than it was before," said Early Childhood Education Council CEO Peter Reynolds, whose organisation represents around 850 centres.
"Previously the advice from the Ministry of Education was very strictly in favour of the children of essential workers.
"This time 'round they've said virtually anybody that needs to send their kids to a centre should be exempted. So that opens it up a bit."
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The ministry, however, said that aside from a two-day period in level 3 in March (just before New Zealand went to level 4) its advice had been consistent.
For that two-day window it said only essential workers' children could attend ECE, and in subsequent level 3 periods it said that any parents or caregivers could send children to centres if they needed to.
"We are guided by the Ministry of Health, and the advice we have been sharing with Early Learning Services has remained clear and consistent," said Katrina Casey, the ministry's deputy secretary sector enablement and support.
She pointed to the ministry's bulletin, which said in April that "parents and caregivers can send children to early learning if they need to".
Despite the ministry's assurance, there is still a perception within parts of the sector that the rules have become more lenient and that more children are returning to centres.
As a result, some teachers are concerned they are being made to return to work in a potentially unsafe environment.
Reynolds said he had received several complaints from ECE staff. He had told them there was no greater risk if more students were returning to centres.
"It is driven by teachers who have read information on Facebook more than reality," he said. "I appreciate people will be feeling very anxious, but the fact is a well-sanitised centre is far safer than most of the homes that kids are coming from."
Many ECE staff were "relieved", he said. Some centres needed their rolls to grow again for them to remain viable.
The level 3 rules for ECEs are based on limiting the number of people that children have contact with. They include a requirement for children to be kept within smaller groups, or "bubbles", which do not mix.
Reynolds said that goal would not be undermined if a greater number of children returned to centres.
"The experience under the previous lockdown was that kids and staff were very safe. I understand the apprehension that's there but we've got to keep it real.
"If a child goes out and plays in the playground, when their bubble is finished the centre staff are out there wiping up equipment before anyone else plays on it. And you can see the results of this, in that there are no transmission cases going on inside an ECE centre."
In the latest Covid cluster in Auckland, one ECE has been forced to close. In that case, the child caught the virus in their home, not at the centre.
It is not yet known whether ECE attendance rates are higher in Auckland during the current level 3 lockdown compared to the previous one. The ministry expects to release data on ECE rolls on Wednesday.