Coronavirus: Top New Zealand educators say COVID-19 response has been 'frustrating', 'slow'

Two leading educators have criticised the Government's response to education under the alert level framework, with Auckland Grammar School's headmaster admitting that "frustrating" is a mere euphemism when describing the last few weeks.

Tim O'Connor and Little School founder Maria Johnson appeared on The AM Show on Tuesday, with both educators agreeing the Government's advice for schools under the COVID-19 response has been "delayed" and "slow". 

O'Connor claimed that education has been "lost" in the battle against the virus and questioned whether the official decisions have been in the best interest of students.

"We could've done things a lot more quickly. Things have been delayed - and complicated, I appreciate that - across the country. There's no doubt we could've done things a lot better and served our children, our students, much better," the Auckland Grammar School principal said.

"I truly think education has been lost through this process and the decisions that have been made for education have not been about teaching and learning."

Students and staff are permitted to return to school on May 18 under alert level 2, which will officially begin as of 11:59pm on Wednesday. Pupils and teachers have largely worked from home since March 25, as schools and non-essential businesses nationwide were forced to close under the four-week alert level 4 lockdown. 

Under level 3, primary-school-aged children up to and including Year 10 were permitted to return to school on a voluntary basis, mainly to allow parents of under-14-year-olds the opportunity to return to work. 

O'Connor says "frustrating" is a "good euphemism" to describe his feelings toward the alert level 3 guidelines.  

"We could've operated with sixth and seventh form over the last week and a half quite easily and met the social distancing guidelines under level 3," he said.

"Unfortunately, only Year 9 and 10 students were allowed to return on a voluntary basis and so of course, on a voluntary basis... no one returned."

Questions have been raised regarding the quality of education students are receiving throughout the COVID-19 response, despite reassurance from educators that their health and safety is the primary concern. Parents have been left wondering whether their children's grades will be affected by the interim of at-home learning. 

The AM Show host Duncan Garner even proposed the possibility of "scrapping" the school year and starting afresh due to the "set-back" for education. However, O'Connor says failing or lowered grades isn't necessarily the case.

"We're giving [our students] really clear guidelines about how they need to interact and learn online. They need to be making sacrifices - we need students in these times to be thinking about a growth mindset, how they can learn - not at the excuses not to learn [sic]. 

"We can get our students through this... we're putting in place right now the transitory processes for returning on campus. They need to be about the checklists to ensure the students have done the set work and completed the assessments while they've been away."

For Little Schools, a group of private preschools in Wellington's Churton Park, Kelburn and Khandallah and Auckland's St Heliers, opening under level 3 was not a risk worth taking.

Founder, owner and managing director Maria Johnson says while Auckland parents are "very keen" to get their children back into school as soon as possible, Wellington families are taking a much "slower" and more cautious approach.

"[In] Wellington... very few are coming back on Thursday, and more are returning on Monday. We also have a good portion who have decided they are going to wait and see what the next two-week cycle brings," Johnson told The AM Show.

"We're still taking the conservative approach. We will still be keeping a lot of the level 3 guidelines in place just until we see the next couple of waves of [case] numbers. It's [about] reassuring our parents that we're taking children's wellbeing, safety and health as our number one priority."

She says despite the "really slow" start, the Government appears to have been more proactive with the level 2 guidelines for schools.

"It was really slow to start with. We were sitting and waiting for a long time under level 3 to find out what the guidelines were going to be. They've been a lot more proactive around level 2 and they came out pretty quickly yesterday after the Prime Minister's announcement... which is good to finally see."

For Auckland Grammar School, O'Connor is keen for a return to "business as usual".

"We're all looking forward to it, getting back full-school and classes all resumed from 9am on Monday. 

"We'll be applying the appropriate hygiene practices and getting on with it."