Experts call for implementation of 10 urgent measures before re-opening Auckland schools

Experts are calling on the Ministries of Health and Education to implement 10 urgent measures to allow for Auckland schools to reopen safely.

A group of academics and experts specialising in paediatrics and health say a premature return to school could lead to further transmission of COVID-19 with "devastating" effects.

"The proposed school reopening date of 18 October is rapidly approaching, and it is unclear whether a comprehensive plan for schools can be formulated and implemented in this short timeframe," they wrote in a blog post for the University of Otago.

"A clear plan, which names mitigations for preventing transmission within schools and ensures very high staff vaccination rates, is recommended before reopening schools."

They are calling on the Health and Education Ministries to take urgent preventative measures to facilitate a safe return, including: 

  1. Staff vaccination, for teachers and all adults visiting school sites. Preference for a staff vaccine target of over 90 percent.
  2. Regular surveillance testing of staff.
  3. Guidance regarding unvaccinated staff, including requirements for strict adherence to mask-wearing at all times, regular surveillance testing and avoidance of high-risk close-contact activities. Where feasible, schools may prefer to deploy unvaccinated staff to non-child-facing duties.
  4. Intensive efforts to improve vaccination uptake among families prior to the reopening of schools via culturally responsive, accessible vaccination services.
  5. Ventilation and physical distancing in schools. This may be achieved by outdoor classrooms, open windows, doors, formation of class bubbles, staggered opening hours and break times.
  6. Guidance regarding the safe resumption of sports, music, drama and other extracurricular activities, and before and after school care programmes (OSCAR).
  7. Guidance regarding masks / face coverings in schools for staff and students. 
  8. Clarification of public health responses and the approach to identification and management of  COVID-19 contacts within school.
  9. Additional financial support and employment protection for parents who need to take time off work when their children require COVID-19 testing and isolation.
  10. Additional resources for schools to support children with health issues who may not return to on-site learning immediately, and for children who are required to stand down from school following exposure to COVID-19. Medical exemption certificates may be required.

"A premature return to on-site learning in schools, particularly in areas of Auckland with low vaccination uptake, and current community cases, may contribute to further transmission of COVID-19, with devastating health and wellbeing outcomes for children, young people and their families," the authors said.

There has been some backlash from teachers over the Government's plans to reopen Auckland classrooms after the school holidays.

Union leaders told RNZ their Auckland members are astonished they could be back in school on 18 October while businesses in the region like restaurants and hairdressers remain shut.

Post Primary Teachers' Association Auckland region chairperson Michael Cabral-Tarry said schools should not reopen on 18 October.

"It is far too soon. We simply do not feel safe to return to normal business at the moment," he said.