Coronavirus: Early childhood centre owner wouldn't send her own kids back to daycare under level 3

The owner of an early childhood education centre (ECE) said she wouldn't send her own kids back until the Government was certain there was no risk at all from catching COVID-19.

ECEs and schools are set to reopen when the country exits the level 4 pandemic lockdown on Tuesday, but Maria Johnson - owner of Little Schools - says hers won't be. 

"As of yesterday I put a survey out for all of my whanau - over 220 parents - and we've only had about 12 parents come back saying they want to return," she told The AM Show on Thursday.

Despite the number of cases of COVID-19 being reported each day dropping dramatically over the last few weeks, Johnson says she's made the difficult decision to stay shut because there's still too much risk.

Asked if she'd send her own children to daycare under level 3, she was blunt. 

"Absolutely not. I would not be gambling with my children's lives. Nope. Not until the Government said there was no risk, and they're not saying no risk. To me, low-risk is too vulnerable."

Children don't appear to suffer from COVID-19 as badly as adults, with few reported deaths or hospitalisations. There's mixed evidence on how susceptible they are to catching it, but they are able to carry it and infect others, even asymptomatically. 

Johnson said the timing couldn't be worse, with winter coming up.

"These are our winter months. These are the worst months for children and our team members who get sick with all sorts of different things. And we're now putting our children and our teachers at high-risk." 

There is evidence the virus survives just as well in warm as well as the cold, but as it's so new, it's unclear yet how the change of seasons may affect its transmission. Most respiratory diseases flourish in the cold months, however. 

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said on Tuesday community transmission is so low "the likelihood of someone with COVID-19 going through the school gate in the first place is very, very low". He's also downplayed the risk of a teacher catching the disease, saying children and teenagers "don't tend to pass the virus on to adults".

Johnson said she didn't understand how it could be low-risk sending kids back to school when most businesses remained either shut or under strict orders to avoid contact between staff and customers, particularly when "one of our largest clusters in New Zealand was at a school".

"I've been trying to grapple with how I would deal with opening up my preschools and a  cluster forming... from an asymptomatic child, and then god forbid, somebody from that cluster dies. I would not personally be able to deal with that. I know that every single teacher in New Zealand would not be able to deal with that." 

Few students returning

The Early Childhood Council has advised its members to stay shut. The Government's guidelines for level 3 are that only children of essential workers who can't stay home should attend school.

But some educators say they're ready to welcome kids back. Across several Christchurch schools, around 10 percent or fewer students have so far indicated they'll be back. Cashmere High is expecting only around 25 of its 900 year 9 and 10 students to be at school, at this stage.

Clearview Primary Principal Rob Rush told Newshub. they're also feeling well-informed and reassured.

"The information we're getting is thorough, it's clear, it's timely, it's regular. 

"The principles of level 3 are to limit contact, so stay home if you can - only send them in if you must. Schools have been supporting that message and parents have been really good adhering to that." 

He expects to have no more than three supervised classes at his school. 

Johnson said ECE centres don't appear to have had the same level of contact from officials, and many teachers are considering leaving the profession, unclear if it's safe anymore or if they'll have jobs to return to when it's all over.

"We're still trying to play catch-up. When the Government made that announcement last Thursday, there had been no consultation with our sector or anybody in education... I think most educators and teachers around New Zealand had to pick their jaws up off the floor. We're still waiting for what the actual rules and guidelines around that are going to be."

"We're in a situation of balancing risk," senior government minister Grant Robertson told The AM Show, backing the return of schooling.

"At the moment there's some low transmission, next week there will be a slow introduction of schools returning. There is still a risk, as there is for anyone. This is just a part of that getting back to normal, assessing that risk. 

"As far as we can see, the amount of community transmission is very low... it's difficult in this world where we have imperfect data and we can't calculate the exact risk."