As Covid-19 experts and many parents welcome the return to school of senior students in Auckland and Waikato next week, the New Zealand Post Primary Teachers' Association has slammed the decision.
Senior students will be back in class in Auckland and Waikato from next Tuesday, but primary school students face a much longer wait as the Government and health authorities grapple with the "significant risk" of what Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins yesterday warned would be the "highest-concentration locations of people who are not vaccinated".
Hipkins said students in years 11 to 13 would return to school from Tuesday to allow them to sit exams and finish NCEA assessments.
Any who were unable to attend exams because of Covid restrictions would receive the "unexpected event" grade, based on their school work earlier in the year, he said.
Hipkins also confirmed plans were under way to get younger students back to school. Measures were likely to include rostering different students on for different days of the week, and allowing outdoor classes as summer approached.
All senior students will have to wear masks at school, and teachers and staff must get a negative test result before returning.
Teachers and other educational staff must also have had at least one vaccination by November 15.
The decision came as director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield warned that case numbers would continue to rise in Auckland. There were 60 new cases yesterday — a drop on Tuesday's record-high 94 cases — with 56 cases in Auckland. Of these, 22 remained unlinked.
The New Zealand Post Primary Teachers' Association Te Wehengarua (PPTA) last night criticised the Government's decision, saying it was "beyond belief" students would be allowed to return to school while the country was seeing its highest daily case numbers.
"The Government seems to have gone from acting out of an abundance of caution to a reckless disregard for the consequences in the blink of an eyelid," Melanie Webber, of the PPTA, said.
Webber questioned who Hipkins consulted with before making the announcement.
"The practicalities of reopening schools safely, such as how you're going to prevent thousands of young people mingling in and between classes, don't seem to have been considered."
She said that the announcement around external exams was of "serious concern".
"The fact that students are being required to sit external exams will significantly add to their anxiety levels.
"But, again, the Government seems to have thrown all its Covid-19 caution to the wind," she said.
Aerosol chemist Dr Joel Rindelaub warned more needed to be done to improve ventilation in classrooms.
"For the older students, it does pose a risk because we do know that with indoor environments where there isn't a lot of ventilation there could be an increase in viral transmission.
"The best option for a lot of these schools is just going to be trying to get as much clean airflow from outdoors as possible.
"If we could have a standardised surgical mask that everyone would use and wear appropriately it might give some of these students and parents a bit more confidence in these tight classroom settings."
As New Zealand moves into the warmer months, Rindelaub said schools need to utilise the weather.
"Outdoors is our friend, we have the best ventilation and the least risk for viral transmission, so if there can be an opportunity to learn outside where we can sit out in that nice weather, that can really go a long way to protecting our students and our community."
Asked when younger children would be allowed to return to school, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the decision was more difficult, given children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated.
"Obviously for older students, vaccinations are possible, so that offers up an opportunity for us to safely bring back senior students who we do need to make sure can access exams," Ardern said.
Although junior high school students could be vaccinated, Ardern said students with upcoming exams were a priority.
"What we want to ensure is for those students that we have to bring back for examinations, that we are doing that safely. The larger the cohort you have, particularly when you're not mandating vaccination, the greater risk that presents."
However, National Party education spokesman Paul Goldsmith said all children should be able to return to school as soon as possible.
"After two months out of the classroom, more and more students are disengaging, and this has the potential to blight the prospects of tens of thousands of kids," Goldsmith said.
"With only three out of five kids in New Zealand attending school regularly at the best of times, we cannot sustain further disruption and loss of momentum.
"Some parents and students will worry about the risks of returning during an outbreak, especially for the unvaccinated under-12s, but my sense is that far more parents and students are worried about the risk of not returning — the loss of interest and enthusiasm, the loneliness, the mental strain.
"The Government is misguided in being ultra-cautious in reopening schools. Waiting for nearly everyone to get around to getting vaccinated is too slow."
Immunologist Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu said vaccinations were critical "to keeping others safe, including our most vulnerable, and this includes our younger children who still don't yet have access to a vaccine".