Four Filipino children who have never been to China have been told to stay away from their Papakura primary school, as principals report growing "panic" and "xenophobia" around the coronavirus epidemic.
Papakura Normal School told the two families of Filipino children, aged 7 to 12, to "self-isolate" for 14 days after they returned to school on Monday following holidays in the Philippines.
Schools International Education Business Association chairman Patrick Walsh said schools were struggling with "unnecessary panic" around the virus, which has now killed more than 1000 people in China and one each in Hong Kong and the Philippines.
"While we can understand a certain level of nervousness among parents, when someone calls to essentially try and ban international students out of coming to school, that is unnecessary and unreasonable," he said.
"That talk needs to be contained because that increases the risk of slipping across to xenophobic attitudes, which we don't want to take hold in any way."
• Coronavirus: Officials tell schools to keep students away if they have been in China
• Coronavirus: Schools in turmoil on plight of students affected by border closure
• Schools tell students who visited coronavirus-affected countries to miss start of term
• Coronavirus: Ministry tells school hostels to isolate students at risk of having coronavirus
The four Filipino children - NZ citizens Kristel and Mary Dumalaon and NZ permanent residents Joyce and Jasmine Botor - returned from their holidays in the Philippines last week.
One of the mothers, Beth Botor, said she was about to leave for work just before 11am on Monday when Papakura Normal's deputy principal Alison Copeland knocked on the door of her house, which is just across Porchester Rd from the school.
"She said, 'I'm a deputy principal from the school and I took your kids from their rooms because of the need to isolate them,'" Botor said.
"I said, 'Isolate from what?'"
Botor said Copeland gave her a notice taken from the Philippine Airlines website stating that the NZ Government had restricted travel between mainland China and New Zealand.
"New Zealand citizens or permanent residents of New Zealand (and their immediate families) are exempt from these restrictions and can travel back to New Zealand but will be required to self-isolate for 14 days once they are back in New Zealand," the notice said.
Botor said she told Copeland that the family did not go to China and did not even travel on Philippine Airlines after the Philippines banned travel to Hong Kong, where they had planned to transit.
The late change, to a Qantas flight via Singapore and Melbourne, cost the family extra money and delayed their return to New Zealand until February 5.
Botor said she was shocked when Copeland told her to isolate her two daughters.
"I took the kids to the GP. The doctor said, 'You're fine, just stay at home,'" she said.
But the consultation cost the family $50 and seemed strange when their two older sons were still attending Rosehill College without any problems.
Botor has taken sick leave from her job as a checkout supervisor at Pak'nSave Papakura so that she can look after her daughters.
But her husband Ronnel Botor, a seafood manager at Pak'nSave Clendon, was surprised when his boss told him to go home for 14 days too.
"The owner of my wife's store called the owner of my store and said I was quarantined," he said. "It's not fair for us, it's not fair for the children."
The mother of the other two students, Mary Jane Dumalaon, said the school rang her on Monday and asked her to pick up her two daughters Kristel, 12, and Mary, 7. She also works at Pak'nSave Papakura, and had to take sick leave to look after the girls.
"They are fine, they don't have a runny nose or anything, that's why I'm so frustrated about it," she said.
Foodstuffs Head of Corporate Affairs Antoinette Laird said the health and safety of all Pak'nSave staff and customers was a top priority and stores were doing their best to make the right decisions in a constantly evolving situation.
She said two staff members at Pak'nSave Papakura requested medical leave from work to look after their children.
After a discussion with the family Laird said a "precautionary decision" was made to ask the partner who worked at another branch to also self-isolate. This was to give store owners time to talk with Auckland Regional Public Health and gain clear direction on whether the family were indeed at risk.
"Both the family and the stores felt this was prudent and staff were on paid leave during this time."
"We have now qualified that there is not a requirement for any of the family to self-isolate and the family will be returning both to school and their respective places of work for their next scheduled shifts."
Papakura Normal principal Derek Linington apologised to the two families after the Herald made enquiries, and said all four students were now free to return to school.
"While we initially asked a family to self-isolate, based on our discussions with the Ministry of Education and on Ministry of Health advice we have advised the family that they are now able to return to school immediately," he said.
The families said the school had agreed to repay both of them for the cost of doctor's consultations.
NZ International Students' Association president Sabrina Alhady said it was "deeply problematic" that the school did not follow Ministry of Health guidelines.
"While education providers are looking to minimise risk, it is clear that there is an underlying sense of fear and hysteria further contributing to misinformation," she said.
Ministry of Education deputy secretary Katrina Casey urged all schools to "keep an eye on our website and the Ministry of Health website".
"Our advice to schools is that if a student had arrived in New Zealand from mainland China prior to midnight Sunday, February 2, and they didn't come from Hubei/Wuhan, there is no requirement for them to stay away from school," she said.
"There is no requirement from Ministry of Health for people travelling to New Zealand from places outside mainland China to have a stay-away period."
A Ministry of Health spokeswoman confirmed that "mainland China" did not include Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan or the Philippines.