Auckland secondary principals fear that hundreds of school students might be left stranded when they try to go back to school tomorrow because bus capacity will be more than halved to maintain physical distancing.
Just as fears about the Covid-19 virus are receding, with most schools expecting 80 per cent or more of their students back in class, concerns have switched to practical issues such as buses and the cost of hand sanitiser.
Macleans College principal Steve Hargreaves, who chairs the Auckland Secondary Schools Principals Association, said he had asked senior staff to take the college's five vans out on the main bus routes to the school to pick up students who couldn't get on to buses.
"If their capacity is halved, potentially we could have 100 or 200 kids on the side of the road," he said.
Rangitoto College principal Patrick Gale has asked all parents whose children travel by bus to have a "Plan B" in case there is no room on the buses.
Auckland Transport spokesman Mark Hannan advised parents of young children to wait with their children to make sure they can get on a bus.
"We can't guarantee there will be capacity for all students," he said.
"If all available seats on a bus are taken then the bus will not be able to accept any more passengers.
"We apologise if a school bus can't take all students who want to use it. We recommend that parents of young children wait with their child at the bus stop in the morning and provide them with a way of contacting you in the afternoon in the event their bus is too full to take them."
Under alert level 2, public transport passengers are required to stay at least 1 metre apart.
On Auckland Transport public buses and trains, that means only one adult can sit in each pair of seats unless they sit next to someone they know, the four seats closest to the driver must be left empty and no one can stand in the aisle.
That will reduce capacity on buses to 43 per cent of normal.
Dedicated school buses are allowed to fill all seats, except the four closest to the driver, if they keep a register of students travelling on the buses. But they will also not let anyone stand in the aisle.
However Hargreaves said most of his students used general public transport rather than special school buses, and even before the Covid crisis he regularly had some students who were left at bus stops because buses were full.
Hannan said Auckland Transport normally runs 480 school bus trips and 2000 public bus trips each morning.
He said 100 of the public bus trips would be diverted to boost school buses, and a further 50 extra school bus trips would be provided using additional buses and drivers.
Some tourist coaches and sightseeing buses, which are empty because the border is closed, will be added to both school bus and public bus services.
"We are hoping to bring in around 50 extra buses, which is an increase of about 4 per cent," he said.
"It is difficult to predict demand at this point because of the number of people still working from home and the fact that most tertiary students (14 per cent of our normal load) are not travelling. In the first two days under level 2 we had no issues with capacity."
Meanwhile Auckland Primary Principals' Association president Stephen Lethbridge said he expected about 85 to 90 per cent of students to return to schools tomorrow.
Secondary Principals' Association president Deidre Shea said the numbers could be "closer to the 80 per cent mark".
NZ Principals' Federation president Perry Rush, who represents primary and intermediate schools, said fears expressed by many parents when the level 2 rules were announced 10 days ago had been eased as the number of new virus cases shrank and the country returned to "some normality".
"We will certainly see some parents still wanting to be given a little bit of time," he said. "I don't think there is going to be a punitive response."
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Tai Tokerau Principals' Association president Pat Newman said he expected only 60 to 70 per cent of students on the first day, but that numbers would grow quickly as parents realise that schools are safe.
"We'll take a very understanding approach because I'd rather the parent was concerned about their child than not concerned," he said. "We are not going to be sending out the truancy officers."
Red Beach School north of Auckland and Mairehau Primary School in Christchurch are putting up balloons on trees and buildings to create a festive atmosphere when their students return after eight weeks away.
"We are going to be at the school gate wearing wigs and colourful things and just trying to look colourful and joyful," said Red Beach principal Julie Hepburn.
Mairehau principal John Bangma said Christchurch schools had learned from the trauma that children experienced after the 2011 earthquakes and last year's mosque attacks, and suggested that parents should do things like giving their child a heart-shaped leaf or a heart on their hand "so that every time they look at it they will know that's my heart and I'm thinking about you and will be with you".
"Even as staff, coming into school on that first day, you feel a little bit apprehensive," he said.
"That is understandable. We are not trying to ignore that. We are trying to find some positive ways to help children through it."