Coronavirus: Voluntary school return will be a 'shambles', 'impossible' - principals

There are mixed views from education professionals whether allowing kids to go back to school in pandemic alert level 3 is a good idea or not.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Thursday said preschoolers and pupils up to year 10 would be able to return on a voluntary basis when the country goes into level 3.

"Our intention here is to create a place for children to go to learn if their parents need to return to work, but to do so safely," Ardern said.

Though COVID-19 is rarely fatal for children, it can be, and they can also carry and spread it. 

Union NZEI, which represents primary school teachers, welcomed the clarification.

"Obviously for the teachers, children and support staff of the country, making sure health and safety is in the foremost of planning is going to be really important," president Liam Rutherford told Newshub.

"I think it's worth reiterating the point the Prime Minister made around how attending school and early childhood should be for those that need it. At level 3, if you can stay at home you should." 

He said NZEI, the Post-Primary Teachers' Association and the Ministry of Education would be discussing how kids could safely return to school, and how teachers will be able to educate both those present and those still at home.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty

Otorohanga College principal Traci Liddall doesn't think it can be done.

"It's going to be a shambles," she told RNZ. "Who is allowed to come back? What is the purpose of them coming back? Are they just coming back because parents are sick of them? Are they coming back because they are the children of essential workers? I can't see it running very smoothly at all."

Richard Dykes, president of the Auckland Secondary Principals' Association, told the broadcaster kids at school will probably end up being taught the same as if they were at home.

"If students do turn up, they're going to be working online, maybe with some teacher oversight, but certainly it won't be face-to-face teaching as we know it."

Principals Federation president Perry Rush said it would be "impossible". 

Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O'Connor told RNZ's Checkpoint he had no idea how it would work.

"It is, from my mindset, one of the most irresponsible decisions for New Zealand education in my time as headmaster of the school... The government's not making a decision about education, it's making a decision about how to provide child care for reopening the country."

He said it would be better if younger kids stayed home and older kids were allowed to attend school, since they're preparing for important exams that could determine their future. 

"Just be honest about it and say schools have to provide child care services. Say we're not educational institutions for the next month.

"This is not about education at all. It's not a teacher's job to be a babysitting service - but, if that's what the government wants, then be honest about it. Don't pretend."

Rutherford said following the Government's public health advice has worked well so far.

A decision on whether we'll go into level 3 soon or stay in level 4 a bit longer is expected on Monday.

New Zealand has 1401 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and has suffered nine deaths. More than 144,000 have died worldwide.