Education chiefs are developing a system for parents needing to put their children back in school once the Covid-19 alert level drops to 3.

The Ministry of Education today released more information on what a potential drop from alert level 4 to level 3 means for school children, who have been learning from home since the country went into lockdown last month.

The move is aimed at clearing up confusion over whether a return to school or early childhood centres is a choice for parents.

Secretary for Education Iona Holsted said that at level 3 parents and caregivers should, where they can, keep their children at home.

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"Schools and early learning services will be physically open for those who need them," Holsted said.

"Parents who can keep children at home should keep them at home. Parents who need to send them to school can do so."

"We will develop systems so that parents can advise if their children need to return to school or early learning so their health and wellbeing and that of school staff can be managed in accordance with public health principles. We are working through this with the education sector to find workable solutions."

A level 3 alert means some aspects of ordinary life can resume including, under certain controls, the reopening of early childhood services and schools.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will announce on Monday if New Zealand will move into level 3 from next Thursday and, if so, schools are likely to reopen on April 29.

Holsted said parents and caregivers best understood their own situations and know that "we are in extraordinary times."

"They will play their part to help keep their children at home, but it is important that schools and early learning centres are physically open for those parents who need them.

Ministry bulletins had already determined how schools and early childhood services would operate under level 3, including:

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• Limiting group sizes (bubbles) in schools and early learning centres to 10 children initially, then 20 "once all processes are running smoothly", and that there must be no mixing between bubbles

• Staggering start and finish times, and break times, to avoid mixing

• Following strict health rules, including providing hand sanitiser in all classes and disinfecting all surfaces daily

• Not allowing children to be closer than 2m from each other during physical education, and not allowing the use of balls, ropes or sticks

• Special schools and after-school programmes remaining closed

• Providing more space per child, and lifting the minimum temperature from 16C to 18C, at early childhood centres

Teachers commenting on the NZ Educational Institute Facebook page this week were overwhelmingly worried about the safety of other people in their home "bubbles", and were reluctant to return to their classrooms until alert level 2.

The decision was gambling with the lives of children and their teachers, Hillcrest High School teacher Stevan Sharples told the Herald.

"This is not a game of Russian roulette. Covid-19 is the gun. And we are the players. The Government are pulling the trigger and there will be no winners here."

Principals' Federation president Perry Rush also initially expressed concerns but, after speaking with Holsted and other officials, told other principals "careful planning" would make the Government's plan workable while also keeping staff and students safe.

Principals' Federation president Perry Rush. Photo / File
Principals' Federation president Perry Rush. Photo / File

Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said ministry-sourced hand sanitiser would be distributed free to all schools and early childhood centres by around April 29.

The ministry accepted trying to keep small children a metre apart from each other and teachers would cause distress and "do more damage than good".

But childcare centres would try to contain children within a "bubble", including by asking parents to stay outside when dropping off and picking up children.

It still leaves some parents facing a "moral dilemma", one mum told the Herald, over whether to send two children to school so the adults could focus on work, or "maintain the incredibly high stress-levels of juggling both home and work life, and protect the health of our darling kids and awesome teachers".

"In the new world we live in, I really don't want to make this decision. The Government should make it for us. It has made all the big calls up until this point - so why stop now?"

'She's just one of these kids who's very ready to go to school'

Georgia Martin, 5, wants to start school, but can't because of the lockdown. Photo / Dean Purcell
Georgia Martin, 5, wants to start school, but can't because of the lockdown. Photo / Dean Purcell

There were tears when Georgia Martin's parents told her she would not be starting school.

The Auckland youngster turned 5 the day the alert level 4 lockdown began.

She was supposed to start school the following Monday, but instead Georgia and older sister Lucy, 7, are stuck at home in their bubble like the rest of the country's schoolchildren.

"She's been really disappointed actually," mum Emily Maire said.

"I think because she's a second child and she's got her big sister already at school, she sort of knows what it's about.

"It's taken a long time for her to turn 5 and she's just one of these kids who's very ready to go to school."

The St Heliers girl had already been on one school visit in her uniform and was looking forward to being a big school girl.

Instead she is at home doing fun activities with her parents including scavenger hunts, outdoor play, dress-ups and Lego.

Maire had tuned in to the new education channel, which featured a segment with Suzy Cato aimed at young schoolchildren, but said she didn't want her daughters watching TV all day.

The 37-year-old business owner said there had been no communication from their school about Georgia's situation as a new entrant.

"So at the moment we're sort of in a state of limbo."

The family has no idea whether Georgia will start school in the next weeks through distance learning, or have to wait until the beginning of term three in late July.

Maire, who was working part-time from home, said she worried a late start date would affect Georgia's future schooling.

"It's really tricky for kids starting at the moment because the cut-off for our school for Year 1 is the end of April.

"So if all of these kids are going to be starting after that cut-off does it mean they are going to be Year 0 or Year 1? I think there's lots of questions."

It could mean the difference between Georgia being in Year 1 or 2 next year.

In another case there was no provision for a child due to start school at the beginning of term 2, the day after her fifth birthday.

Because the school term was brought forward it meant the girl could not start school until the next cohort intake halfway through the term.

But her mother, an essential worker, had already given up the girl's place at kindergarten which meant she would have no childcare if she returned to work.

The Ministry of Education said it was not a "one size fits all" situation and directed the Herald to advice on its website for schools.

"If a parent requests that their child start at school and they can provide all the required documentation, you cannot legally refuse to enrol them," the information stated.

About 4500 5-year-olds started school at the beginning of term two last year.

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New Zealand’s third week in lockdown was it's most deadly, but as new case numbers continue to fall, NZ remains optimistic that Level 4 restrictions may be lifted on schedule.

Auckland Primary Principals Association president Stephen Lethbridge said most schools would have a flexible approach to Year 0 and 1 cut-offs and recommended worried parents contact their principal to clarify.

He said each school would tackle the lockdown individually.

"We have to trust that the schools are making the best decisions for their communities because they know what's going on for their communities.

"Starting school at 5 has been a cultural rite of passage for our kids ... But we haven't experienced a lockdown like this in our lifetime and we have to be quite adaptable and flexible."

Lethbridge, principal of Point Chevalier School, said principals were awaiting alert level 3 restriction detail.

"For those that were due to start at the start of term 2, which effectively is now, it's not going to set them back if we delay that start."

At his school, Lethbridge said, a new entrant teacher was putting together a welcome video for that class and planned to incorporate the class into the online learning portal.

He said home learning through play, cooking, education TV and helping parents was all valuable for children.

"We're all doing the best that we can at the moment and that includes our parents.

"If things are tough in getting the children to do the learning take a step back, breathe deeply and don't sweat the small stuff."

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website