Bay of Plenty schools are preparing for sickness and new teaching arrangements as Omicron spreads throughout the region, as one school leader says they may be forced to switch to online learning if too many staff are absent.
Western Bay of Plenty Principals Association president Suzanne Billington said primary schools in the region were preparing to teach students off-site and on-site at the same time.
She said it was important staff could deliver learning to students present at school but also those at home isolating.
"We have to put plans in place that means we are flexible enough to keep kids, staff and the community safe but also to deliver learning."
Billington said it was difficult to know exactly how this would play out as Omicron spread through the community.
"We don't know what we don't know and it could look quite different one month to the next. It is very much a moveable beast."
She said the biggest difficulty surrounding this would be providing timely feedback to those learning from home.
It was also proving difficult to find time to prepare for Omicron while fielding questions from parents around new mask-wearing requirements and other education changes at the red setting.
"We are having to keep communities up to date on what is changing. There is a lot of work going on just settling kids back into school. It is having the time to do the work and having enough information to put stuff into place.
"The bottom line is that kids are happy and settled. That is the priority."
Mount Maunganui College principal Alastair Sinton said he was "planning ahead" for potential staffing shortages, but would not know "the extent of the challenge until it arrives".
The school was preparing for a "number of scenarios" that would ensure education could continue on-site but Sinton said if there were prolonged periods with "many" staff absences it might be forced to close.
He said despite Omicron looming students were feeling "pretty good" to be back and staff were trying to keep things "as normal as possible" at the red setting.
"Mask wearing indoors remains an important topic of conversation purely from a practical perspective."
There had also been a "very small number" of inquiries around homeschooling exemptions from parents, he said.
Tauranga Boys' College was preparing to have between 30 and 40 per cent of staff off-site at one time through them contracting Covid or having to self-isolate.
And principal Robert Mangan said he anticipated the school would have to "alter" operations as Omicron cases grew.
"I am expecting that at some stage we will have to put steps in place to continue to provide education online whilst also operating in a face to face manner," he said.
"If the school needed to close tomorrow because we had a large number infected with Omicron or self-isolating our students would be able to carry on with learning online."
Meanwhile in Rotorua, some principals were concerned about staffing levels as teachers became ill or were identified as close contacts.
John Paul College principal Patrick Walsh said it was a "critical issue" for the school.
Walsh said the school had a dedicated pool of relievers but he was worried they would find it hard to organise cover.
"With 68 teachers we will struggle to cover classes even if five or six are out related to covid"
He was anticipating the possibility of rostering home years levels to carry out distance learning.
In a bulletin issued to school leaders last week, The Ministry of Education said it was "highly likely" schools would experience staff shortages as a result of Omicron.
Business continuity plans were needed to ensure schools could deliver services with reduced staffing, it said.
At the red setting, fully vaccinated relievers can work across more than one school but must adhere to all public health rules - including wearing face masks.
"Once Omicron is in the community, schools and kura could experience staffing challenges. Each school will need to plan ahead to identify solutions to keep your school/kura safely open for onsite teaching and learning as far as possible," it said.
The bulletin said schools need a plan in place to supervise children who had to be at school - particularly those that were vulnerable.
And if there were not enough staff onsite to meet minimum health and safety requirements school sites would need to close and move to learning from home, it said.
Clinical psychologist Dr Melanie Woodfield, from the University of Auckland, said there was a "strong case" for keeping schools open to all where possible during the pandemic.
"Given that inequality seems to have been exacerbated by lockdowns, families are fatigued, and young children benefit from consistency."
And adolescents needed the "social connectedness" school offered as they developed their sense of identity and values, she said.
"That identity formation typically happens in the context of social connectedness with peers, alongside their family."
While consistency was "really useful" for young children's learning, she said this could be tricky to achieve right now.
"Ideally there wouldn't be abrupt changes. But consistency in the midst of the pandemic's unpredictability can be hard to achieve."
She said young children often did well navigating change and experiences of "low levels of distress" could assist them in developing tolerance of uncertainty.
"They can surprise us with their ability to pivot," she said.
"And there also are practical things that the adults around them can do to support children in this time of transition."
Woodfield said when working with young students worried about Omicron, it was useful to reflect on their concern to help them feel heard before moving on.
And at school younger students needed "lots of repetition" of short and developmentally appropriate information about the virus, she said.
"Not just one big sit-down class discussion on the first day, but reminders and prompts little and often.
It was important to find a balance between "taking Omicron seriously" and explaining that most people recovered and felt better quickly, she said.