Government officials have reversed their position on banning children in childcare centres from using playground equipment in alert level 3 after industry complaints.

The change comes after the Ministry of Education sought public health advice from the Ministry of Health, which made the ruling.

Earlier it appeared that a ban on allowing Kiwi kids to play with equipment in outdoor spaces at daycares would see them remain indoors all day.

Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield had said during a Facebook Live session with Secretary for Education Iona Holsted that playgrouds would be off-limits.

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Childcare centres have since been told on Thursday that their outdoor playgounds can be used.

However, education bosses have reaffirmed that playground equipment remains off limits for schools, which usually have playing fields and other spaces for children to play without the need to climb on equipment.

Playgrounds at public venues such as parks also remain banned.

A Ministry of Education spokesperson said on Thursday night: "This was always a Ministry of Health question to address, which they have now done.

"We asked MoH a range of questions yesterday as we worked through our health and safety guidance for Alert Level 3. Health answered all our questions and we finalised our health and safety guidance and published in today's bulletin.

"We did not previously have any advice from Health nor a position ourselves on this issue."

Bloomfield made what appeared to be an on-the-spot decision on a Facebook Live session with educators to keep playgrounds out of bounds at schools and childcare centres.

Many schools have told parents this week that their playgrounds will be closed. For example, Tauranga Intermediate School said on Tuesday that "our playground, library and other non classroom-based facilities will remain closed".

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But Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said that would have put most childcare centres in "an impossible position".

"You can imagine a 3-year-old spending six hours a day at a childcare centre and not allowed to go outside, which is not a particularly sensible or healthy thing for that child," he said.

Both the council, which represents mainly privately-owned centres, and Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood NZ, representing mainly community-owned centres, asked the ministry to review the ruling.

Katrina Casey says outdoor playgrounds can be used in level 3 at early learning centres but not at schools. Photo / File
Katrina Casey says outdoor playgrounds can be used in level 3 at early learning centres but not at schools. Photo / File

Ministry deputy secretary Katrina Casey said outdoor playgrounds could now be used under level 3 in early learning centres but not in schools.

"Unlike playgrounds in schools, play areas in early learning services are usually secure and not accessed by the general public. This makes it easier for services to ensure health and safety requirements can be met," she said.

"However strict health requirements do need to be met. Where outdoor space is shared, bubbles – that initially comprise a maximum of 10 children - must access the space at separate times.

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"All toys and play equipment must be wiped down with appropriate cleaner after each bubble exits that area, and if possible separate play equipment should be reserved for each bubble."

Bram Kukler says kindergartens
Bram Kukler says kindergartens "have the hygiene procedures in place to use the playgrounds safely". Photo / Supplied

Auckland Kindergarten Association general manager of education and innovation Bram Kukler said kindergartens were already planning to give children access to all playground equipment.

"It would be very difficult to cordon that off, and we feel that we have the hygiene procedures in place to use the playgrounds safely," he said.

Evolve Education chief executive Tim Wong said his 128 childcare centres would also allow access to playgrounds.

"We are very stringent with our cleaning and disinfecting, we have formed a new overarching policy on the same for all our centres to comply with and this includes the outdoor playgrounds," he said.

Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds has backed off his threat to keep childcare centres closed in alert level 3 because of the risk of spreading Covid-19. Photo / Supplied
Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds has backed off his threat to keep childcare centres closed in alert level 3 because of the risk of spreading Covid-19. Photo / Supplied

Meanwhile, the early childhood sector is now split over whether to reopen at level 3.

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The Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust has advised its members to stay closed, saying whānau "should take an extra precautionary approach and not risk the health and wellbeing of our vulnerable pakeke, kaumātua and mokopuna [adults, elders and grandchildren]".

Chief executive Angus Hartley said more than a third of kōhanga whānau fell into high-risk groups and nearly 80 per cent of the 444 kōhanga "do not feel safe to return to mahi at alert level 3".

The Early Childhood Council has now backed off a threat it made on Monday to keep its 1300 centres closed during level 3 because of the risk of spreading Covid-19.

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Reynolds said he was still concerned about the health threat, citing new evidence from Japan that young children could catch the virus and pass it on. But he welcomed the ministry's change of heart over playgrounds and also its clarification this week that centres will still be funded for all children enrolled even if they don't physically attend during level 3.

BestStart deputy chief executive Fiona Hughes expects most of her 260 early childhood centres to be open from April 28. Photo / Supplied
BestStart deputy chief executive Fiona Hughes expects most of her 260 early childhood centres to be open from April 28. Photo / Supplied

The country's biggest early childhood chain, BestStart, said "quite a number" of its 260 centres would open on Tuesday, April 28.

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Deputy chief executive Fiona Hughes said only 5 to 10 per cent of enrolled children were expected to turn up, and any families needing childcare whose normal centre does not open would be directed to other BestStart centres.

Wong said all Evolve centres would open, although mostly with fewer than 20 children.

Evolve Education CEO Tim Wong says all his 128 centres will open next week, but often with fewer than 20 children. Photo / Michael Craig
Evolve Education CEO Tim Wong says all his 128 centres will open next week, but often with fewer than 20 children. Photo / Michael Craig

Kukler said "quite a few" kindergartens would not open because they had no families needing them, "so we are looking at whether we need to combine children from different centres".

Te Rito Maioha chief executive Kathy Wolfe said community-owned centres would make their own decisions based on their parents' needs, but were not opposed to opening.

"Our members are of the view that they kind of want to do their bit," she said.

However, she said early signs are that only 5 to 10 per cent of parents will send their children back to childcare next week - similar to schools.

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"There will be some anxieties around returning their children to early learning, but also I think they will exhaust all other avenues before they choose to send them to the centres," she said.

"They probably will have whānau at home that wouldn't have been there before, still working from home or whose work hasn't started up again yet, so they might have the opportunity to have whānau at home, or they can bring a carer into their bubble in level 3."

Where centres decide not to open because they might only have one or two families needing them, Wolfe said many are working with other local centres to ensure that at least one centre remains open in each community.

• Level 3 education rules: covid19.govt.nz.

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