Bay of Plenty schools are preparing for sickness and new teaching arrangements as Omicron spreads throughout the region, as one principal says staffing shortages could be a "critical issue".
Rotorua Principals Association president Gary Veysi said schools in the region were entering the third year of the pandemic "well-prepared" while also "taking it day by day".
At Mamaku School, where Veysi is principal, students returned this week "tired and a bit confused". Teachers maximised time outside to have breaks from wearing masks.
He said his biggest concern this term was managing staff capacity as Omicron spread.
The school lost a teacher last year who made the call not to get vaccinated and now there was the "exact" number of staff needed at school.
A teacher who previously relieved at the school had since been employed permanently.
"Relievers have already been pulled into the system so you can imagine when Omicron comes through and a teacher has to be away - then it is trying to find that person to come in at fill that space," he said.
"If a lot of schools are doing that, then there won't be the people out there. It is just a numbers game."
Some parents had also requested learning from home resources, which Veysi said was understandable but put more pressure on teachers' workload.
"It is like doing double the work and often learning packs will help for a little while but you don't get the real learning out of a worksheet. You get the learning from the discussion, communication and sharing you have within a classroom."
John Paul College principal Patrick Walsh said a "critical issue" as the school prepared for the spread of Omicron was staff shortages.
Walsh said the school had a dedicated pool of relievers but he was worried they would find it hard to organise cover.
"With 68 teachers we will struggle to cover classes even if five or six are out related to Covid."
He was anticipating the possibility of rostering home years levels to carry out distance learning.
An external consultant had been hired to review processes and educate staff on the science behind Omicron, how to fit a mask properly and the most effective ways to identify virus symptoms.
Rotorua Boys' High School principal Chris Grinter said his priority as school returned was ensuring everyone was settled and instilling health and safety protocols across the new student population.
"We're feeling positive about the new school year and school has settled quickly into a good routine. Most people seem glad to be back, although of course Omicron lags over us all," he said.
A third guidance counsellor had been appointed to provide further wellbeing support for students in need, he said.
Grinter said there was a "pool of relievers available" for when staff became ill but they could only cover absences to a certain degree.
"The school will need to explore options around full and, or partial closures if numbers of staff absent get too high."
A number of students and staff were already in isolation because of Covid exposure or by virtue of being close contacts, he said.
Grinter had also seen "some evidence" of whānau wanting to home school their sons, he said.
In a bulletin issued to school leaders last week, the Ministry of Education said it was "highly likely" schools would experience staff shortages as a result of Omicron.
Business continuity plans were needed to ensure schools could deliver services with reduced staffing, it said.
At the red setting, fully vaccinated relievers can work across more than one school but must adhere to all public health rules - including wearing face masks.
"Once Omicron is in the community, schools and kura could experience staffing challenges. Each school will need to plan ahead to identify solutions to keep your school/kura safely open for onsite teaching and learning as far as possible," it said.
The bulletin said schools needed a plan in place to supervise children who had to be at school - particularly those who were vulnerable.
And if there were not enough staff onsite to meet minimum health and safety requirements school sites would need to close and move to learning from home, it said.
Clinical psychologist Dr Melanie Woodfield, from the University of Auckland, said there was a "strong case" for keeping schools open to all where possible during the pandemic.
"Given that inequality seems to have been exacerbated by lockdowns, families are fatigued, and young children benefit from consistency."
And adolescents needed the "social connectedness" school offered as they developed their sense of identity and values, she said.
"That identity formation typically happens in the context of social connectedness with peers, alongside their family."
While consistency was "really useful" for young children's learning, she said this could be tricky to achieve right now.
"Ideally there wouldn't be abrupt changes. But consistency in the midst of the pandemic's unpredictability can be hard to achieve."
She said young children often did well navigating change and experiences of "low levels of distress" could assist them in developing tolerance of uncertainty.
"They can surprise us with their ability to pivot," she said.
"And there also are practical things that the adults around them can do to support children in this time of transition."
Woodfield said when working with young students worried about Omicron, it was useful to reflect on their concern to help them feel heard before moving on.
And at school younger students needed "lots of repetition" of short and developmentally appropriate information about the virus, she said.
"Not just one big sit-down class discussion on the first day, but reminders and prompts little and often.
It was important to find a balance between "taking Omicron seriously" and explaining that most people recovered and felt better quickly, she said.