Teachers are reacting angrily to new rules for level 3 of the coronavirus alert system which they say will place them at risk and will make them just "babysitters".

Bruce Cunningham, principal of Belmont Primary School on Auckland's North Shore, said he "fielded over a dozen emails, texts or phone calls from my staff, and none of them were positive" after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern unveiled the new rules.

"I am disappointed that teachers, support staff and principals are being used as what seems to me as caregivers/babysitters for students whose parents move back to the workforce," he said in an open letter to Education Minister Chris Hipkins and ministry head Iona Holsted.

He said that the Prime Minister said that school bubbles would help the Government undertake contact tracing, "as if it is ok to use teachers and children as sacrificial lambs".

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"The PM says no face-to-face contact, hence no retail, so bars, cafes etc closed, yet it is okay for school staff to have face-to-face contact with many bubbles?" he said.

Belmont Primary School principal Bruce Cunningham says his teachers don't want to be treated as
Belmont Primary School principal Bruce Cunningham says his teachers don't want to be treated as "babysitters". Photo / Supplied

Principals' Federation president Perry Rush also said schools were being treated differently from other businesses.

"If businesses can operate under level 3 only if accessed by staff and without customer-facing functions and can open only under strict health and safety and physical distancing rules, then translating that into the school environment, we cannot have children attending school under level 3 at all," he said.

"This appears to be an inconsistent approach. For teachers to accept children back at school, they would have to be separately assigned as operating under level 1 or 2."

Secondary Principals' Council chair James Morris said the new rules would turn high schools into "de-facto daycare".

Ardern said early childhood centres and schools "will be available up to Year 10 only, but attendance is purely voluntary" at alert level 3.

"For children who are able, distance learning is still the best option," she said.

In particular, all senior students in Years 11 to 13 will still be required to learn from home at alert level 3 - the opposite of previous indications that older students might return to schools first because they were better able to maintain social distancing than younger children.

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Morris said the Government had clearly decided to let younger students go back first so that schools could provide childcare for parents who will be returning to work.

It is illegal to leave children without supervision under the age of 14, which most children reach during their Year 10 at school.

"In Year 10 there will still be some students that need supervision, so essentially I think the decision was to enable people who can go back to work to do that, and schools can support that by looking after the students," he said.

"That's fine, that's part of what needs to happen."

However, in practice, he believes that very few high-school students are likely to turn up at school, judging by the "couple of handfuls" who kept attending at most schools on the two days when the country was at alert level 3 on March 24 and 25.

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James Morris says the level 3 rules will turn high schools into
James Morris says the level 3 rules will turn high schools into "de-facto daycare". Photo / Supplied

Morris, who is principal of Darfield High School in Canterbury, said "essentially no students came in" to his school on those last two days.

"If you only have a few students in the school, it's more supervision rather than necessarily running normal classes for them," he said.

"If most of the teachers are deployed doing the distance learning, that will mean that it's probably most efficient for the students in those classes to just be supervised while they carry on with their distance learning. The school becomes a de-facto daycare."

A table released by Ardern says that alert level 3 requires "physical distancing of two metres outside the home (including on public transport), or one metre in controlled environments like schools and workplaces".

The Covid-19 website says: "There will be far fewer students on the grounds, and they will stay within their small groups."

Morris said it would be possible to keep high-school students one metre apart as long as there were no more than about 15 students in a class, and to keep each class cordoned off from others in break times.

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"We'll just allocate each year level a block and try and keep them relatively together as a group," he said.

Perry Rush:
Perry Rush: "We have no capacity to adequately control close contacts in that setting." Photo / Warren Buckland, Hawke's Bay Today

But Rush and Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said it would be impossible to keep children a metre apart in primary schools or childcare centres.

"We have no capacity to adequately control close contacts in that setting," Rush said.

Reynolds said Ardern must understand that the very nature of early childhood care was "quite intimate relationships between teachers and children".

"I don't imagine for a second that what she is suggesting is that teachers in childcare centres stay one metre away from children who have bumped their heads and are starting to cry," he said.

Peter Reynolds: Early childhood centres
Peter Reynolds: Early childhood centres "should continue to be funded as if all children on their rolls were attending, even if only a few actually turn up". Photo / Supplied

Secondary Principals' Association president Deidre Shea said the feasibility of social distancing and the extent of classroom teaching would depend on how many students turn up at each school. That was likely to be more than the numbers on March 24 and 25.

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Onehunga High School principal Deidre Shea expects more students to attend school this time than on the two days before lockdown, when only children of essential workers attended. Photo / Suipplied
Onehunga High School principal Deidre Shea expects more students to attend school this time than on the two days before lockdown, when only children of essential workers attended. Photo / Suipplied

"When we were under level 3 previously it was only the children of workers in essential services. Under this level it will be the children of workers in 'safe services'," she said.

Cunningham said his teachers all wanted to get back to their classrooms, but they wanted to be safe to protect other members of their families.

They wanted at least to have hand sanitiser available, but it was not available from the school's usual supplier, Office Max.

"We really want to go back, we are missing the kids," he said.

"But we just want to make sure that we're safe because we don't want to expose our families when we come back home."