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Auckland and Waikato schools are juggling student timetables and parents' wishes as they decide how and when to reopen classroom doors next week.
All children in level 3 areas will be allowed back at school from next week - with just four weeks of the school year to go.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins has announced Years 1-10 students in Waikato and Auckland will be able to return to the classroom from November 17. However primary and intermediate pupils will go back part-time and schools will set their own hours.
Auckland kids have been away for close to three months. While many have been learning online, some haven't had access to devices or good internet connections, and have been working through hard packs of school material.
Hipkins said lockdowns could be stressful for kids, and returning would let them reconnect with teachers and friends - and provide certainty ahead of the Christmas break.
While some Auckland and Waikato parents will have breathed a huge sigh of relief, there's also anxiety about the spread of Covid among those under 12, who can't be vaccinated.
Years 9 and 10 - who can be vaccinated - are to return full time, but most students in Years 1-8 will likely be at school for unspecified reduced hours, to help with distancing.
Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti told Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB today that the November 17 start date was for schools and so they could work with their communities about re-starting.
Schools had been doing an "amazing" job with their online learning, which had been their main focus, and they were now keen to get back to school.
As for mandates, she said the vast majority of teachers have been vaccinated. The Ministry of Education was working with schools where there was a supply issue and working around it.
Asked about the deaths of three New Plymouth school staff in a car crash after attending the Covid protest at Parliament,Tinetti said it was "terribly sad situation".
As for being anti-vax, she said that overwhelming majority were positive about the mandate and the safety it provided for children
Speaking to The AM Show, Tinetti said it was about more than just the kids getting back to school, but also helping them get back to a sense of normality.
From next Monday the education workforce would have had its first vaccination, she said.
The part-time process proposed by the Ministry of Education was already being run in schools overseas and those jurisdictions hadn't seen big outbreaks in schools and there was "less risk of spread". Young people also hadn't been suffering as badly from Covid, she said.
The Government had put a range of public health measures in places such as masks for kids from Year 4 and ensuring social distancing.
She conceded it could be a struggle for kids to wear masks, but schools could teach them.
Schools had some wonderful ideas about how they could welcome their young people back and had been working on it for some time, she said.
"This isn't just about the vaccinated population, this is about the mental health of our young people."
To schools where staff won't get vaccinated, Tinetti said education officials were working directly with those schools for solutions. Schools could apply for a very short-term exemption, but from January 1 all staff had to be double-vaccinated.
Developmental paediatrician Dr Jin Russell says the Government's decision to reopen schools next week was very balanced.
"What we have here is fast rising levels of vaccination particularly in Tāmaki Makaurau.
"So we need to keep that in mind as we think about school environments."
Parents needed to remember there were now higher rates of protection - in terms of teachers being vaccinated, a high number of older secondary school students being vaccinated and the systems schools are putting in place to help prevent any transmission of Covid.
Speaking to TVNZ's Breakfast, Russell acknowledged that the more adults who were vaccinated at a child's home, the better protected that child would be.
Many schools were creating bubbles among the students while at school and also taking a lot of lessons and activities outside instead of in the classroom.
There will still be less occupancy at schools, as some parents continue to keep children at home.
On children in Year 4 upwards having to wear masks, she said: "Most children will be able to mask and if we can create a strong mask culture at school, that's fantastic."
Russell revealed she understood National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research is also involved in works to provide a better plan regarding ventilation in schools ahead of winter.
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Hipkins said the public health advice supported the return to school.
Fulltime learning would continue on site for those children who had already needed it - for example, so their parents could go to work.
Children in Years 4 and up will have to wear masks, he said. Other measures to mitigate the risk of Covid included ventilating classrooms, limiting the number of students on site, and making sure groups of children didn't mingle.
Schools have been grappling with numerous challenges, including how to open while case numbers continue to climb, with some parents worried it's not safe to send their children back.
'Being a parent I don't know what to do'
Manurewa mother of eight Perity Reid said this is the first time she doesn't know what is best for her children.
Reid currently has four children at school, two in primary and two boys who are in Year 11 at Manurewa High School.
"This is the first time in my life, being a parent I don't know what to do for my children.
As a household of 10 living in a small four-bedroom house, Reid and her husband have taken extra precautions to protect their family.
But she said there is a risk if she sends her children back to school.
"With the boys, if I keep them at home they will fail and if I send them to school if they catch Covid, (they will) bring it home and because we have a small house it's not like we have a big space and there are 10 of us at home," she said.
"I don't know how we are going to do it if one of them catches it."
Hipkins said the decision to reopen schools followed consultation with those in the sector, including at kura kaupapa, but he acknowledged there was some nervousness.
"We need to rebuild that trust and confidence among the parent community."
Schools would receive comprehensive guidance but the solution would not be the same for every school.
They did have the option of bringing students back full-time if they could do so safely.
Developmental paediatrician Dr Jin Russell said the decision was a good one that balanced children's needs.
"Schools support socio-emotional wellbeing, and are crucial community hubs which support families in practical ways.
"Prolonged school closures can be harmful for children and young people, perpetuating educational inequities and for some children can be associated with mental stress when in challenging home environments."
Lower occupancy on site, high vaccination levels - including in over-12s - and other measures meant the risk of transmission in schools could be kept low, she said.
Although seniors have been allowed to return back to school, Reid and her husband made the choice to keep their two sons at home, but knows they have struggled with online learning.
"Our boys have always done so well at school, but because everyone is using the internet at home, our internet is slow and that's why they are saying they can't do their work here," she said.
"There are times I do get frustrated with all my kids at home but I am happy they are at home."
The Government had previously indicated that primary schools could be returning in a staged way from November 15.
Dr Cherie Taylor-Patel, principal of Flanshaw Rd School in Te Atatū, told the Herald the Ministry of Education had consulted principals who had suggested November 17 as a start date, to give them time to prepare and deal with the teacher vaccine mandate, which kicks in from November 16.
Schools are now consulting parents about their plans and preferences for next week, with Taylor-Patel predicting a quarter of Flanshaw Rd parents might keep their children home.
Staggered classes would be different for every school depending on space - and they would need contingency plans for essential workers and teachers who had children.
"Our board are quite keen for us to keep it simple - everyone I think is a bit over complicated logistics. We've been doing that for three months."
Taylor-Patel was surprised by the masking plan for Years 4 and up.
"People have made it work overseas so it can work but going into summer, it definitely is a challenge."
Reid doesn't believe her primary aged children would be able to wear a face mask for a long period of time.
"My 9-year-old doesn't even like the mask on her face and that's why it's really hard on for us to send them."
Rowandale School principal Karl Vasau was delighted that schools would have flexibility in how they reopened, calling it a "game changer".
Parents and staff at his school in Manurewa had already discussed that a staggered start might not help some families - many of which were large or shared homes with other families.
"Say for example we've got the juniors coming in - what are their older siblings going to do at home? And then they swap."
Many of his parents would be anxious - Manurewa is one of the latest suburbs of interest in the outbreak, with high case numbers.
Teachers would survey parents this week on whether they planned to keep children at home, wanted them back full-time or supported a staggered system.
"Then we'll know how big the bubble will be, how many will only want part-time. But until we get that advice from our families we can't pre-empt anything. It's easy for us to do what we think is right but it's more empowering when we have the voice of our community."
Stephen Lethbridge from the Auckland Primary Principals' Association said the Ministry had given schools more comprehensive information on Wednesday night, and would soon provide a risk assessment tool to help them decide how to manage the return safely.
Parents would be asked about their plans for their children, which would help inform the school's decision.
But ultimately schools would have to make the final call on what would work for them, following strict guidelines under the public health advice.
"We'll be managing that as best we can. There will be some reduction in the capacity at school - it'll be a matter of trying to best juggle the needs of the community while getting as many kids back face to face as possible in an effective way."
NZPF president Perry Rush told RNZ flexibility had clearly been prioritised but he believed the approach was more complex than it needed to be.
Most students would be back part-time under this plan. Rush instead believed the sector would have welcomed a situation where some students and staff stayed home and did online learning, and some attended face-to-face classes.
He understood Hipkins had meant that every student was expected to return but it was up to schools on how to do that.
"I think at a time of significant tension and stress in the education sector this certainly kicks the ball back at principals and back at schools and their communities - it's a fair amount of work."
Macleans College principal Steve Hargreaves, who is president of the Auckland Secondary Schools' Principals' Association, said Auckland principals had been consulted about Years 9 and 10 returning.
"While there was a range of opinions the vast majority want to have the year 9 and 10 students back. The main debate was around timing as some schools keep their senior students on campus for longer than others and they were concerned about capacity constraints.
"The Minister has given schools flexibility around the start day so that assists schools in doing what suits their community best."
Macleans was looking forward to welcoming juniors back and expected they would return in very high numbers, he said.
But the move to bring back Years 9 and 10 next week has blindsided at least one Auckland secondary principal who was frustrated at what he felt was a lack of consultation.
Patrick Drumm, head of Mt Albert Grammar School, said he and other principals at some big Auckland schools had not been given the opportunity to give their views on the return of Years 9 and 10.
It was exciting to get the students back but there were logistical challenges to managing thousands of people on site in the middle of the outbreak, he said.
"All it would have taken was some talking to us potentially many weeks ago about how we'd manage this - we're good at managing large numbers of people and good communication systems. It just seems crazy that we're getting these directives from a podium in Wellington."
MAGS would probably wait until November 22, when seniors left for exams, before bringing juniors on site, Drumm said.