Education Minister Chris Hipkins adamant schools safe despite criticism

coronavirus 29/04/2020

As schools reopen for some students on Wednesday the Education Minister says he understands some people are hesitant to send their children to class.

The country's shift to alert level 3 late Monday night means that children who are unable to remain at home can now attend classes again.

The decision to partially reopen schools and early childhood centres has caused controversy, however, with many expressing concern over their children's safety and some teachers saying they feel like "glorified babysitters".

Education Minister Chris Hipkins says it is natural for people to have doubts but there is no risk for those attending classes.

"I can understand people's hesitation," Hipkins told The AM Show on Wednesday. "People are still in the level 4 mindset, and that's actually a good thing for the country overall, it means people are taking this very seriously and don't want to see this spread again."

The decision to partially reopen schools was based on public health advice, Hipkins said, adding that only those who need to send their children back should do so.

"We have been clear though that these schools and early childhood education (ECE) services are there for those that have to use them and if people can keep their kids home then we encourage them to do that."

Early childhood services were expecting around 6 percent of normal attendance while schools were expecting just 3 percent of their normal students to return.

"These are really low numbers and that means that those schools and ECE services can do things differently. They can keep the group sizes very small and they can make sure that they're keeping everyone very safe in the process." 

On Tuesday, principal of Manurewa Intermediate School Iain Taylor said he believed schools should not be opening until the country moved to level 2 and that teachers were "literally babysitters".

Now the decision had been made though, he said teachers "just need to be positive and get on with it".

"We need to be doing this because there's been lots of sacrifice in our country. Most kids that are coming to school, they're going to be engaging, they're going to be participating with other kids, and that's important for our kids - their whole wellbeing, and feeling like they're doing something is really, really important," Taylor told The AM Show on Tuesday.

Hipkins said the decision to allow children back is linked to the Government's confidence there is no widespread community transmission of COVID-19 here, and despite the fact cases of COVID-19 continue to drop it was "unlikely" the country would move out of level 3 earlier than the two weeks originally planned.

"We don't want to put the gains that we've made at risk by moving too soon and then having to go back into lockdown again."

Among the voices criticising the Government's decision is the principal of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's former high school Morrinsville College.

John Inger said he was surprised by the ruling and warned students returning so soon could end in "potential disaster".

But Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has repeatedly stated that based on the latest data from around the world schools are not considered a high-risk setting for children.

Earlier this month the Government announced an $87 million package to help children study from home while the country is in lockdown. The package provides online devices and other material necessary for home-learning.

However, not all packs have arrived yet, despite term two beginning already.

Hipkins urged parents still waiting for material to "be patient".

"Packs are still being sent out but it's a huge logistical undertaking. So far, we've sent out so far about 12,000 packs for ECE and about 131,000 packs for school students. More packs are going out all of the time so be patient, it does take a wee while to get all that material out there."