Coronavirus: 'Unlikely' students back at school as soon as lockdown ends - Education Minister

The Education Minister says it's unlikely children will be packing their bags and heading back to school as soon as the nationwide lockdown ends.

Two weeks ago, the Government moved New Zealand to Alert Level 4 due to community transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. That prompted the closure of all educational facilities, with students forced to stay at home and complete any work remotely. School holidays were also moved forward to cover the first two weeks of the lockdown. 

If the lockdown isn't extended - which the Prime Minister still hasn't ruled out doing - it's likely the country will move to Alert Level 3 or that some regions with community transmission remain locked down, while the strict restrictions are lifted in areas that have contained the virus.

New Zealand was only at Alert Level 3 for two days prior to the lockdown, so many Kiwis won't realise it still has several tough requirements, including that "affected educational facilities" are closed, mass gatherings are banned, public venues are shut and "alternative ways of working [are] required". People will still be advised to practise physical distancing and good hygiene.

Once the lockdown is over, Education Minister Chris Hipkins told The AM Show that parents shouldn't expect their children to be heading back to school straight away.

"Don't assume that as soon as we are come out of level four that schools and early childhood services will all automatically reopen. That is actually unlikely. It is likely to be more of a staged re-entry for schools and early childhood centres and that is going to be done based on health advice" he said.

"It is quite difficult to manage social distancing and, particularly for young kids and early childhood and in primary schooling, so we are working through all of the different scenarios for when it will be safe for kids to go back to school.

"We want them back at school as quickly as we can get them back to school. But we are not going to do that until we know they will be safe and we are not going to be spreading the virus."

Speaking to Parliament's Epidemic Response Committee on Thursday, Hipkins reiterated that it wasn't "a realistic option" to expect all schools to reopen on the first day after the lockdown.

"Parents will need to be preparing for a variety of different scenarios, including potentially having their kids at home for longer than the four-week lockdown period."

On Wednesday, Hipkins announced an $87 million Government package to assist students to work from their homes. It will be launched next Wednesday when term 2 begins and allows children to learn via online devices, hard packs sent out by the Ministry of Education, and a new television service.

"We've done a survey of schools and what schools are doing now. About half of the schools in the country are well set up and already have the capability of doing this and kids have got the devices at home and broadband connections," he told The AM Show

"There are about 80,000 households that don't have a connection and don't have access to those devices, so we are doing what we can to connect them up and for the kids that just can't get connected up in time, we are preparing hard-pack material.

"From day one… every kid in the country will have access to at least one channel of learning. In the worst-case scenario, that will be one of the two TV channels we are setting up, but, ultimately, the goal is to have more than one channel of resource available to them."

He said the television channels will run for a month, but that could be extended, while each hard pack has about a week's worth of learning. 

"I am not announcing how long we think this will go on for, we are planning for every possible scenario."

The decision about whether to extend the lockdown depends largely on the level of community transmission in New Zealand. Over the last few days, New Zealand has seen dropping numbers of confirmed cases despite increased testing.

Several international papers have warned, however, that if countries reduce intensive measures after believing they have contained or eliminated the disease, if a spike occurs, those restrictions will need to be ramped up again extremely quickly. That may mean a country goes in and out of lockdown multiple times until a vaccine is developed.