Coronavirus: Education expert Mike Bedford says early learning centres 'one step down from MIQ' at alert level 3

Coronavirus: Education expert Mike Bedford says early learning centres 'one step down from MIQ' at alert level 3
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As Auckland makes its way through the fourth week in an alert level 4 lockdown, some eyes are eagerly looking to an alert level 3 move.

A shift down alert levels would give those in the super city slightly fewer restrictions - one being around education facilities. 

While play centres and playgroups must close during level 3, early learning centres are allowed to open for children whose parents are required to go to work and have no other childcare options. Face coverings aren't required in these centres and staff aren't expected to give masks to children or staff - it's still an option for these people and parents can decide for their children.

Over the past week, Newshub has been inundated with emails from concerned kindergarten teachers and parents of young Kiwis who are worried about children returning to early learning centres at level 3. The concerns range from several bubbles coming together in one close-knit environment, to worry that COVID-19 would spread easily in early childhood education (ECE) centres.

Mike Bedford has reservations about centres opening up at level 3. He is New Zealand's only postgraduate qualified public health specialist in ECE health and wellbeing and has investigated about 50 infectious disease outbreaks in early learning centres. 

"For the risks associated with transmission, I would put early childhood centres one step down from MIQ - in other words, it's the second-most risky environment that we have," he tells Newshub.

"The risk that you have with MIQ is the connection to the outside bubble, it's the potential of infections coming into the country from outside - that's what makes that high risk.

"But when you go to environments within the New Zealand bubble, the only other comparable environment for risk would be a retirement facility [because of how easily it spreads]."

Two of Dr Bedford's key concerns are "poor" teacher to child ratios and the amount of indoor space per child in centres.

The ratio in New Zealand is one teacher to every five children for those under two years old and 1:10 for children aged two to five years old. Bedford says the ratio for older children starts to "fall apart" when they're two to three years old.

"People talk about the terrible twos, well this is the toddler age. You're mobile, but you're not completely in control of being mobile. You haven't learned a lot of self-management or social interaction control yet, you're into everything - and you've got a 1:10 ratio for that age group. That's nuts," he says.

"Then for under-twos, the 1:5 ratio is normally described by teachers as pretty much unmanageable. It's just not remotely good enough.

"The recommendation is 1:3 internationally, 1:4 is not good but not disastrous, 1:5 is hopeless."

His second concern is the amount of space per child, which is currently 2.5m2 free of fixtures and fittings. In Australia, it is 3.25m2 of clear floor space.

"This 3.25m2 is standard in a lot of jurisdictions, but the Ministry of Education, as a special provision for COVID-19, extended the minimum space to 3m2 per child. In other words, our increased space per child in COVID-19 would be considered illegal overcrowding in Australia and a number of jurisdictions," he explains.

'The chances of them spreading COVID is very high'

Leanne Baker, who owns a preschool south of Auckland, is concerned about reopening at level 3 because it means several bubbles will come together and teachers also can't physically distance themselves from children.

"I am very concerned about turning up for work at level 3 and I will be wearing a mask. It is literally our only protection from spreading and catching COVID if it's in our community," she tells Newshub.

"These are the children of essential workers. Their bubbles are compromised and this compromises the health and safety of all staff and children attending.

"You cannot ignore a child that needs settling, so cuddles and comforting is a no brainer - that's what we do. The least we can do in level 3, if we have to work, is wear a mask and try to limit any exposure."

Once Baker's centre reopens, she is worried about the number of bubbles that will mingle together.

"Suddenly a bubble of two children, one coming for five days and the other coming only for two days a week, becomes a bubble of five different families coming together, plus whoever the children's parents have been in contact with at work."

Wellington-based childcare specialist Simone Ammon is concerned for her Auckland colleagues and families about opening up centres in level 3. 

"Social distancing would be impossible to mandate at ECE centres particularly in regards to the children, as at their age they are constantly touching each other and so the chances of them spreading COVID is very high," she tells Newshub.

"Given that there has been a high number of community transmissions in Auckland, I recommend they do not open until alert level 2."

So far in New Zealand's outbreak, 125 of the 868 total cases have been in children aged 9 years old and younger. While there isn't a further breakdown of infections within this age group, six children under the age of one were known to have contracted the virus, as of the end of August.

'They will distribute infections through communities'

Bedford agrees with Baker and Ammon's concerns. On bubbles, he shares worries that several children coming together from different households would mean COVID-19 would spread rapidly through centres.

"This is a characteristic of early childhood centres that they will distribute infections through communities," he says. 

"If you wanted to pick the best environment to bring an infection into, spread it around everyone in the environment and then transmit it out across the community, then that's an early childhood centre."

Bedford says the only way they can measure safety is by having no community transmission of COVID-19.

Level 3 is defined as having a "medium risk" of community transmission in active but managed clusters.

With this in mind, he says opening centres in level 3 is worrying.

"You have level 3 with community transmission, you should not be open, and that's looking towards the Auckland situation because that's where they're headed."

An update on Auckland's alert level is set to be announced on Monday.