A Chinese family on Auckland's North Shore has decided to take their children back to China, joining a small trickle of parents starting to withdraw children from New Zealand childcare centres because of coronavirus.

Two playcentres - Herne Bay in Auckland and Ōpunake in Taranaki - have become the first early childhood education (ECE) centres to close for at least a week. Playcentre Aotearoa general manager Sean McKinley said parents in both places wanted to "do their bit" to stop the virus spreading.

Kia Ora everyone, We realise it’s Playcentre Open Week but we have made the difficult decision to cancel our sessions...

Posted by Herne Bay Playcentre on Sunday, 15 March 2020

Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said he had been contacted by ECE centres "all over the country - Auckland, Dunedin and in between - saying, what do we say to a parent who wants to withdraw a child?"

Another source said Asian families were the most worried, including the North Shore family returning to China.


"They believe that is the safest place for them to be right now because they are seeing the number of reported cases coming out of China has decreased quite significantly," the source said.

The numbers so far are small. Fiona Hughes, deputy chief executive of the biggest early childhood company BestStart, with 18,500 children, said "less than 30" parents have withdrawn their children so far.

"They have the ability to care for their children at home and want to minimise their child's interactions," she said.

Evolve Education, the second-biggest private chain, said the biggest numbers were in Auckland, and particularly in the central business district where many parents have started working from home.

"If they're not coming into the city, they're not bringing their children into the city," said chief executive Tim Wong. "It's nothing major at the moment for our group."

Ministry of Education head Iona Holsted told journalists in Wellington that the ministry was not expecting or planning for widespread school closures, and that parents "should continue to send their children to school and early learning services unless, of course, they are unwell".

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ChildForum chief executive Dr Sarah Alexander said closing early childhood education (ECE) centres unnecessarily would not help young children, who have generally escaped from the effects of the virus, and could endanger the group most at risk - the elderly.

Dr Sarah Alexander:
Dr Sarah Alexander: "Children and the elderly may be safer if children are in ECE." Photo / Supplied

"Grandparents, elderly neighbours and retirees in the community may be people that are left caring for children while parents work. So children and the elderly may be safer if children are in ECE," she wrote on her website.

"No child aged 0-9 years has been known to have died from the coronavirus."

McKinley said parents at the Herne Bay and Ōpunake playcentres would reassess their decisions soon. Ōpunake plans to reopen on April 1 "or reassess if other closures have taken place".

Kia Ora everyone, In light of the current situation with Corona virus, we, along with other national Playcentres, have...

Posted by Opunake Playcentre on Tuesday, 17 March 2020

"We are following Ministry of Education guidelines stating that there is no need for us to close any of our early learning centres at this time," he said.

"The difference for us is that we are not teacher-led, we are parent-led. We have just over 400 centres, and at a couple of them the parents have decided that they are going to close."

However, Alexander said centres had to expect to lose more children when parents started losing their jobs because of the expected virus-induced recession, leaving them able to look after their children at home and needing to cut costs.

"Some people [this includes parents and staff working in ECE] will lose their jobs or have their hours reduced, especially in tourist locations such as Rotorua and Queenstown," she said.

Peter Reynolds is talking to the Ministry of Education about relaxing the funding rules to help early childhood centres through the recession. Photo / Supplied
Peter Reynolds is talking to the Ministry of Education about relaxing the funding rules to help early childhood centres through the recession. Photo / Supplied

Reynolds said the sector was already talking to the ministry about helping centres through the recession by relaxing rules such as being required to notify the ministry when a child attends for fewer days than they are enrolled to attend in more than half of the days or weeks in a month.

Kindercare chief executive Kelly Wendelborn said the ministry could also relax the rules requiring at least 80 per cent of teachers to be qualified for centres to claim the top funding rate.

"Some teachers have been self-isolating and we are coming into winter where we do see an increase in absences due to illness," he said.

The ministry told centres on Tuesday: "We are currently exploring whether any current rules can be relaxed or quickly changed."

Ministry acting deputy secretary Susan Howan said the ministry was "reviewing the current requirements governed by the regulations and the Early Childhood Funding Handbook".

"Our first priority is to identify any of the current requirements that can be relaxed or quickly changed so there are no barriers to self-isolation. To that end we have already relaxed some requirements for the extension of the three-week rule for continuous absence.

"We will advise the early learning sector of the next phase of changes shortly."