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The Government should stop playing "Russian roulette" with children's health and have an open discussion about the risk of Covid-19 in early childhood learning centres, MPs have been told.
And Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds told the Epidemic Response Committee this morning that the sector has not heard anything yet about what level 2 will look like.
The Health Ministry has justified reopening education institutes under level 3 by saying that the chances of Covid-19 transmission among children was very low while the social costs of school closures were high.
Reynolds said that a survey showed that 73 per cent of council members were "okay or nervous" about reopening last week, and that the chief concern was carrier transmission.
He said the parents were seeing Covid cases among children overseas and even though transmission among children was possible, "they're not seeing it in the Government's messaging".
"They feel like we're having stuff hidden from us ... They [Parents] need reassurance their child is okay to head back, rather than the kinds of things we're seeing at the moment, which frankly looks like a sales pitch.
"We need to stop playing Russian roulette with our children."
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It is day eight of alert level 3 and MPs will hear from educators who have had schools and Early Childhood Education centres open for a week.
The committee this morning is hearing from the Early Childhood Council, the New Zealand Principals Federation, Auckland Grammar School, Oropi School, the Hair and Beauty Industry Training Organisation and Victoria University.
Many schools and early childhood learning centres were anxious about opening their doors last week to students up to year 10 inclusive, with some saying they may refuse to do so due to Covid-19 fears.
Reynolds said that many ECE centres also faced a financial crash because the sector was already under pressure and had been open during level 3 but were not charging parents.
He called for clear level 2 guidance from the Government, adding that a 1m physical distancing rule would be workable.
But if the current space restrictions were rolled over to level 2, he said ECE centres would continue to have half-filled rooms, which would trigger lost revenue, staff redundancies and the closure of some centres.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will outline on Thursday what life under level 2 will look like, and Cabinet will decide on Monday whether the country is ready to ease down from level 3.
Current guidelines under level 2 state that schools and ECE centres will open, with distance learning available for those unable to attend school, such as people self-isolating.
The Government has asked parents to keep their children at home at level 3 where possible, and last week Ardern said that message seemed to have been heard as attendance at ECE centres was at 4 per cent while year 1 to 10 attendance at schools was at 2 per cent.
New Zealand Principals Federation national president Perry Rush told the committee that schools were chiefly concerned for vulnerable students, who may face the threat of family violence at home, and for remedial students with specific teaching needs.
"This question of what the next step looks like is very critical and somewhat worrying.
"We're keen to learn what the next tranche of public health advice is, which will enable us to thin about how to address these problems with coherence."
He praised the Ministry of Education's work in a difficult time, adding that clear guidance had been provided.
Asked about whether schools had enough information and time to prepare for level 3, Rush said it was a "line call" to reopen schools and the main challenge was enforcing physical distancing.
'It's been a shambles.'
But Auckland Grammar School headmaster Tim O'Connor slammed the Education Ministry for what he described as a lack of communication, guidance and strategy for dealing with Covid-19.
"To be frank, colloquially, it's been a shambles."
Among his examples, O'Connor said he learned of the moves to level 4 and to level 3 at the same time as everyone else - from the Prime Minister's press conferences.
"There was no prior warning to those announcement, no educational input to the decision to return year 9 and 10 [at level 3]. If it was safe to partially reopen, why not let schools make decisions about year 12 and 13 students to return under safety guidelines?
"Instead, why was education simply synonymous with childcare?
"No one had a strategy and no one was advocating for education."
He said health and safety guidelines for level 2, including physical distancing expectations, would help the school plan for how many students can return to campus.
He said other issues included national access to learning and teaching resources and the lack of any reassurances from NZQA about NCEA assessment.
"We have 2600 students, 158 teachers and 70 support staff, and parents in the thousands who deserve some surety. We've started to give them that, but the leadership has come from the school, not the ministry."
'Emerging racist tones'
Oropi School principal Andrew King called for the decile system to be abolished by the end of the year, given how Covid-19 was exacerbating wealth gaps.
He also called for schools to bring forward intercultural initiatives due to "avoid emerging racist tones that are emerging in communities".
He said Oropi School was looking at a $100,000 hole, and all schools were facing challenges as Covid-19 impacted revenue streams including local business sponsorships and fees from international students.
"It would be rude of me to expect sponsorships and support and donations. I'll be reluctant from 2021 asking for money from the community."
He said information from the Ministry of Education about moving to level 4 and 3 was good but there needed to be clear level 2 guidelines with sufficient time for schools to prepare and communicate with their communities.
12,000 workers with no work for six weeks
Hair and Beauty Industry Training Organisation Kay Nelson said there were about 5000 hair and beauty businesses that employed about 12,000 workers around the country.
"The shutdown has left our industries completely unable to operate."
Hairdressers are hoping to be able to open under level 2, but how that could happen with 1m physical distancing rules remains to be seen.
Nelson said that industry guidelines for safely operating at level 2 had been provided to WorkSafe.
"Perhaps we could get some hurry up on the approval of that."
She said businesses were grateful for the Government's wage subsidy and loan provisions, but more support including for ongoing apprenticeships would help.
About 25 to 30 per cent of businesses will fold if they couldn't reopen soon, she said, adding that margins were so thin that businesses would not be viable unless they could offer full services.
She said some salons had lost up to $200,000 in revenue in the past seven weeks, CBD salons faced fixed costs up to $10,000 a week, and 70 per cent of salons had used up their personal savings to stay afloat.
Don't throw the 'international students' baby out with the Covid-19 bathwater
Victoria University Vice Chancellor Grant Guilford said universities were facing a $500 billion hole in the coming year, with the expected $115m surplus across all universities now looking like a $397m loss.
Victoria was looking at a $30m to $40m loss, and had already spent $500,000 on student hardship grants as well as $5m on subsidised student accommodation.
He cautioned the Government not to throw the "international students" baby out with the Covid-19 bathwater, adding that Victoria could safely allow them to return to classes, subject to a 14-day quarantine and a negative test for Covid-19.
"We can do this safety with no public health risk to New Zealand."
He acknowledge Victoria's back-track on charging students for halls of residence rooms when they were unoccupied, adding that the Government could abstain from "tossing rocks" and instead offer specific student hardship grants and even a universal student allowance would help students survive the downturn.
Victoria has applied for the Government's wage subsidy scheme, he said, but was yet to hear a response.
New Zealand universities could also band together to offer online courses for international students, he said.
"That's the big idea that comes out of this Covid crisis. We can show the world what New Zealand has.
"That would not be successful unless we came together and put the best of our minds on show."