Coronavirus: Schools excited to have students return, appreciate flexibility of part-time on-site learning

Schools in Auckland and Waikato say reopening next week under new restrictions is doable considering the potential risks and they like the flexibility of working out how they will welcome their students back.

After three months, all schools in Auckland and Waikato can re-open for students in years 1 to 10 from next Wednesday. It will be part-time for most pupils and schools are allowed to manage that in different ways.

In Māngere, Jean Batten School principal Nardi Leonard says around a third of her 400 students won't be coming back this year.

"If [parents] are really not happy about their child returning, they're not going to be ostracised for deciding to keep their child at home," she says.

But Leonard says she's excited to have students return.

"I'm just really missing seeing the happy faces of our kids."

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield is reassuring apprehensive parents that schools won't turn into super-spreader hotspots.

"The spread is more likely to happen outside of school settings than inside," he says.

Schools are being asked to limit the number of people on site.

"That can include alternating days, half-days, through year levels, or through whanau groupings," says COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.

It'll be up to schools, parents, and communities to manage that for themselves.

"The schools will now spend the next few days we've got for preparation gathering voices, asking parents, working with their staff and their boards of trustees. Just trying to find something that really works for them," says Rowandale School principal Karl Vasau.

He says he appreciates the flexibility.

"So many of our communities in Auckland are very different. And the opportunities and some of the choices just aren't the same."

The primary school teachers' union NZEI says it's likely schools will already have made their plans.

"We know one of the things COVID has done really well is foster that conversation between communities and schools," says president Liam Rutherford.

One thing that'll be the same for every school though - mandatory masks for students in year 4 and up.

"That'll be a challenge because a lot of our young people, as you know, don't like wearing masks. A lot of adults don't like wearing masks," says Vasau.

Years 9 and 10 are coming back full-time to prepare for junior exams, which means they could be potentially mixing with years 11 to 13 students before they go on study leave.

Secondary Schools Principal Association president Vaughan Couillault is confident schools can handle the risks.

"Next week was probably going to be quite quiet in terms of the need for students to engage in the senior school, and I would expect a drop off in number. So it's OK, it's doable," he says.

Couillault says for many students, including his own daughter, online learning just hasn't been cutting it.

"It's not so much about the reading, writing, and arithmetic. It's about the connectivity and the being human, and communing with her friends."

The reopening dates fall two days after the deadline for teachers to get their first vaccination.

Amid concerns some rural schools would struggle to open, the Government has announced those reluctant to get the Pfizer jab now have another option - AstraZeneca.

"People who are required to be vaccinated because they're captured under an order, and not willing to have an mRNA vaccine like the Pfizer does, this gives them an alternative vaccine," Dr Bloomfield says.

The alternative vaccine will be available for those who can't have Pfizer for health reasons.