Special schools want students back in the classroom despite the Omicron outbreak, but they want help to keep the risk of Covid infection as low as possible.
They're hoping they will be first in line when the Ministry of Education sends out new air purifiers from March.
The schools serve students with intellectual disabilities but many also have health issues, like lower immunity or respiratory problems, which mean Covid-19 could hit them hard.
Central Auckland Specialist School principal Trudi Brocas said some of the public health measures other schools could take would not work for special schools.
A large number of CASS students couldn't wear masks or socially distance, while some students would run away if doors and windows were left open to get fresh air into the classroom.
"Special schools typically have kids who have vulnerable health, who are medically fragile, who don't comply with many risk mitigation factors," Brocas said.
"On the other hand they also represent a population of kids who missed out the most, because without the opportunities of being at school their communication, routines and everything go out the window. They're not young people that learn especially well independently or on Zoom."
This week a report from a group of New Zealand paediatricians outlined measures to lower the risk of Omicron in schools - but said extra measures were needed to protect higher-risk students at special schools.
Those schools would benefit from dedicated plans and a higher level of Ministry and public health support, they said.
Air cleaners to be sent to classes with 'greatest need'
Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced earlier this week that 5000 air purifiers had been ordered for schools, with 500 arriving in March and the remainder in June.
That's nowhere near enough for all New Zealand classrooms - instead the Samsung purifiers will target spaces that can't be properly ventilated through natural means, as well as being deployed in schools where there is an outbreak.
Last year 2500 portable carbon dioxide monitors were also ordered for schools to assess air freshness in classrooms and work out where changes are needed.
The ministry has advised that opening doors and windows to create airflow is still the best way to keep air fresh and lower the amount of virus circulating if an infected person is in a classroom.
But Brocas said many special school classrooms, including satellite classrooms, had doors and windows that couldn't be opened, as children would run away.
CASS was one of several special schools that had fed back to the Ministry of Education this week that they would like to be prioritised for the air cleaners and monitors, Brocas said. She was also planning to order N95 masks for teachers as soon as the Ministry of Education made them available.
Sam Fowler, the ministry's associate deputy secretary for property delivery, acknowledged some schools would need help ventilating their spaces and the ministry was focused on addressing those issues through property improvements.
"In deploying air cleaners to schools we will consider the needs of the schools identified and prioritise them by greatest need, including consideration of the risks and challenges present in special schools and satellite units."
Sean Teddy, ministry hautū (leader) of operations, said the ministry had secured "an initial supply of appropriate masks" for school staff which could be distributed from the start of Term 1.
"We are also making sure that our advice to schools and kura in our School Bulletins addresses the needs of students who require additional support. We are working closely with specialist schools through the Special Schools Principals' Association (SEPAnz) to understand and address their specific support needs."
Brocas said the ministry had been very responsive to any concerns special schools had raised.
CASS staff were "very excited" to have kids coming back next week, she said. After last year's lockdown many families were nervous but the students had thrived when they returned.
"Everybody has agreed it was exactly the right thing, to get them back into a routine, forming connections, and getting a handle again around their health and physicality and communication."
Nonetheless Brocas knew there was a group of kids who wouldn't come back in the red traffic light setting. CASS was working out how to support them at home until their families felt confident it was safe to come back.
"Ultimately it is up to us to make our classrooms as safe as we can [but] we can't eliminate the risk. That's one of the key things we're trying to get through to our staff and families because it's a hard thing to get your head around."