The Government wants kids back in class fulltime this year to avoid more disruption to their learning - but Omicron threatens to derail those plans.
Outside New Zealand's borders, the highly infectious Covid-19 variant is forcing many schools to shut down as it spreads quickly among teachers and students in Europe and North America.
And one of New Zealand's foremost public health experts has warned the new variant means Government needs to rethink every aspect of its pandemic plan - including being ready for school closures when a wave of the virus hits.
A spokesman for Education and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said Cabinet would next review its plans when it met on January 17.
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Speaking to the Herald before Christmas about what school would look like in 2022, Hipkins said he wanted stability and full attendance to be the norm, with disruptive measures like alternating days at school only used on local level in case of an outbreak.
He anticipated there would be a high threshold before officials would consider closing a school. "A couple of cases generally wouldn't be enough to trigger it."
Hipkins was banking on high vaccination rates making schools safe. From January 1 all staff must have been double-jabbed and secondary school students' vaccination rates were also expected to hit 90 per cent before the start of Term 1, which would provide "a good strong layer of protection".
Pfizer's vaccine for kids aged 5-11 will be available from January 17, with 476,000 children eligible from that date.
But even after vaccinations, Hipkins said public health measures would still be in place with measures like indoor masking and cohorting - limiting mixing between class groups - likely to be around for a while yet.
"If you look at the Northern Hemisphere, things improved for a while over summer, and then they got worse going into winter," Hipkins said. "I'm always aware of the risk of this. We don't yet know when we'll be able to remove some of those public health measures."
Hipkins was hoping getting kids back to school would help remedy issues like the digital divide, which he said had been made worse by Covid. And teachers - who he acknowledged were stressed and tired - had found hybrid learning was "almost impossible".
His own focus this year would be on wellbeing - making sure kids were attending school and engaged.
"I want the kids back in the classroom sooner rather than later because we certainly wouldn't want them to lose any more in-person learning time."
Meanwhile the best scenario for New Zealand was Covid mutating over time to become more transmissible but much less severe - but nobody would be betting on Omicron being the variant to do that, Hipkins said. He hoped there would be clearer insights from overseas by mid-January.
Since then New Zealand has had two close calls with Omicron, and experts believe the variant's arrival and spread is inevitable.
University of Otago Professor of Public Health Michael Baker told the Herald the Education Ministry, like every government agency, needed to be preparing for the new variant to "sweep through" the country.
"This variant's going to behave differently, based on what it's doing overseas, so we'll need to use our interventions differently."
Baker said there was an increasingly high risk of Omicron escaping MIQ due to the cases building up at the border.
The health impacts of Omicron were still uncertain, but at this stage it appeared to be less severe, he said. After looking at all the overseas evidence the Government could decide that letting the variant spread was the best strategy, especially with New Zealand's high vaccination rates.
If the Government were to decide at the end of February to open the border with Australia, "Omicron would arrive immediately and circulate very intensely".
New Zealand would then need to use mitigation measures to flatten the curve to stop services being overwhelmed and protect the most vulnerable people.
Baker wanted young children vaccinated as fast as possible before that happened, and for the country to use the time it remained Omicron-free to prepare.
While he emphasised that he was not an education expert, Baker said he would expect the Ministries of Education and Health to be developing contingency plans for managing the education sector in all scenarios, including deciding whether or not to keep schools open at the peak of an Omicron outbreak.
"During an Omicron outbreak, it will become more like a national epidemic quite quickly and so they need to work through all the elements that need to be in there. That would include policies to reduce the risk in schools [and] manage infection in children."
That could mean closing classes or whole schools for short periods. There was also a role for frequent rapid antigen tests for students and teachers and indoor masks for kids as young as 5.
Countries where Omicron was hitting were experiencing very intense outbreaks, he said. Some schools were forced to close purely because so many teachers were off sick.
"This is around thinking about what will be most effective at flattening the curve and meaning that classrooms don't just turn into an endless series of super-spreading events," he said.
Asked earlier this week whether it was updating its advice for schools due to Omicron, the Ministry of Health said it was regularly reviewing guidance and policy advice in light of international developments, including new variants such as Omicron.
Parents, not supply, likely to determine rate of vaccine rollout
The Ministry of Health says supplies of the vaccine for kids aged 5-11 are due to land in New Zealand on January 8. The stock needed to go through quality assurance, be thawed and repacked and then distributed to vaccination sites, with deliveries starting January 10, a spokesperson said. That would ensure all sites across New Zealand had child doses ready for January 17.
Hipkins said unlike the adult vaccine, which had initially faced supply constraints, there would be enough of the paediatric vaccine to get under way and ramp up quickly. It would be parents' willingness to get their kids vaccinated that would determine the rate of the rollout.
"Internationally, evidence would suggest that we should be prepared to start off a little bit slowly but then increase," Hipkins said. "By then we will have a lot of insight from the roll out of those 5-11 year old vaccines in other countries, and I'm hoping that they will give parents here confidence."
The Ministry of Health said the 5-11 rollout would focus on using the existing network and service delivery model but that new settings like schools would also be used.
The children's vaccine would be available at all vaccination centres and appointments bookable through bookmyvaccine.nz.
But there would also be a targeted focus on "priority populations", a ministry spokesman said. "This will include the use of community-based centres, marae, churches and pharmacies – venues we have successfully used in the rollout of the general Covid-19 vaccination programme.
"We will also be using new settings to encourage vaccination, including schools. It is up to each school's boards to determine if they would like their school to be used as a vaccination site. Schools should contact their local DHB if they are interested in being a vaccination site."