The country's schools have been put into turmoil after the Government's sudden banning of foreign nationals returning to New Zealand from China.

While many schools have kicked off the first term, many students had taken the opportunity to return home to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

But it's not only students who will now have their learning put on hold, there's also a possible conundrum of what to do with students temporarily in the country to study and not keen to return to their coronavirus-stricken home country.

Principal of Macleans College in East Auckland Steve Hargreaves says while he could understand the Government wanted to do everything to protect New Zealanders from the rapidly spreading virus, he was frustrated at the way it had been handled.


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"I think the frustration is how the advice has changed so dramatically within days."

Their first advice from the Ministry of Education on January 24 was "take no action", he said.

Then on the following Monday, a two-week stand down period was imposed for students returning from China. And then the block was imposed yesterday.

John Paul College principal and Schools International Education Business Association chair Patrick Walsh says the ban not only affects students returning to NZ but those due to leave. Photo / File
John Paul College principal and Schools International Education Business Association chair Patrick Walsh says the ban not only affects students returning to NZ but those due to leave. Photo / File

"So there's no consistency with any of it ... there was no heads up that this was a possibility.

"We're frustrated but I'm trying to be understanding in that it's an evolving situation and the folks who are making these decisions are dealing with information as it comes to their hands."

McLeans College, which has a roll of about 2600, has more Chinese students enrolled than any other in the country, he said.

"Half our roll is of Chinese origin. I've probably got domestic students who are caught up in this as well."


Two students had come from Wuhan. While one had returned, another had been having visa difficulties. Due to the lockout he was unable to return anyway.

He was still to determine whether four or five other international students, who would have returned to celebrate the Chinese New Year, had made it back.

"I would be surprised if it's less than 10 or a dozen ... by the middle of next week we will know how many of our students haven't returned."

There were also other students currently on the two-week incubation stand-down period.

Not only did the ban affect students coming in, but also a planned school exchange trip involving 20 students to their school sister city in Guangzhou in a few weeks.

"But of course that's been cancelled. The Chinese government has told the school that they can't host us and of course we wouldn't send them anyway, so that's on hold."

The school had 250 Chinese international students and the ban would have an impact on the economy of both schools, he said.

Rangitoto College principal Patrick Gale. Photo / File
Rangitoto College principal Patrick Gale. Photo / File

Given yesterday's announcement, they would be spending today working out the financial ramifications for parents if the exchange can't happen later in the year.

Patrick Walsh, principal of John Paul College in Rotorua and chair of the Schools International Education Business Association (Sieba) said he'd been fielding calls from concerned principals on average about four or five times a week.

At the college, there were three or four students who had missed the start of the school year.

"Another three or four have come but they've gone into voluntary isolation for two weeks."

There were also about a handful of domestic students in the virus-affected areas who were also due to return.

And added complication he'd fielded as chair of Sieba, was what happens to Chinese students in New Zealand for short-term study, and, if no vaccine has yet been found, whether they could continue to stay in the country.

"I can understand the situation. If I was them I wouldn't want to go back to China either, so that's a question we've asked the Ministry. I guess it's an immigration problem but it's also a humanitarian one.

"If you have international students here for short-term stays and the coronavirus goes on for months and I can understand their safety concerns about going back to the affected areas. I'm not sure how that would be viewed by the Government.

"I guess the optics wouldn't look particularly good if we were to send people back into an environment where they're at high risk of being infected, but who covers the cost if they stay longer, and what do we do with them? I don't know the answer to that."

He agreed that he didn't think the Government had put enough thought into the implications of the sudden ban.

For some schools, the financial loss of international students would take a massive hit on their budget, as for some it was how they stayed afloat.

Patrick Gale, principal of Rangitoto College in Mairangi Bay, said they had not yet had any cancellations from international students who are still to return.

Instead, the school was working to continue their education prior to their arrival.

As for homestay families, a few had declined to take students for the two-week isolation period, primarily due to having either young or elderly people in the home who lack the viral tolerance.

The affected students had been placed with other families, or in a house staffed by school staff.

A spokesperson for St Cuthbert's College in Epsom said they had pre-empted the outbreak getting worse, so ensured their students returned to New Zealand in time for the start of the school year.

"We moved quite soon on hearing about the coronavirus and because of that we'd informed the parents quite early so we'd actually organised an awful lot with the girls and a lot came here early because our term started last Wednesday so we don't really have a problem with students being overseas."