Government urged to 'stop playing Russian roulette with our children' as parents fall ill with 'flu-like symptoms'

An early childhood learning leader is urging the Government to "stop playing Russian roulette" with children by allowing them to return to classrooms, claiming multiple parents are falling ill with "flu-like symptoms". 

Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds told the Epidemic Response Committee that early childhood centres (ECEs) are under pressure to maintain safe environments after the Government allowed them to operate under alert level 3. 

He said there is not enough information available to them about the risks of COVID-19 carrier transmission, and that staff are anxious about returning to work, citing recent reports of parents falling ill. 

"A parent of a child who attended an early learning centre last week… The parent is sick with flu-like symptoms, they're being tested for COVID-19," he said. 

"That centre has to decide whether they stay open or shut or put a 'bubble' into lockdown in order to keep children and staff safe and I had three examples like this in one hour yesterday."

He said it's "unnerving" for staff but the Ministry of Health is advising that it's safe for them to open. 

ECEs are able to open to provide childcare for people who are working during alert level 3, but children are not able to attend play-centres and play groups. 

Reynolds said staff are choosing to stay home because "they're just too anxious".

"We have opened doors while a silent disease is out there in our community. We don't need a sales job about reopening - we need a realistic view of the risks with reassurance around what we're doing to fix it.

"No one wants a cluster in an early learning centre."

It comes as many ECEs are "just hanging in there financially", he said. 

"They've taken advantage of wage subsidies to retain staff and keep paying them 100 percent of their wage rate or 80 percent through the lockdown... But as we saw after the Christchurch earthquakes, it takes time for parents to return to a sense of safety."

Reynolds said ECEs were surveyed and the results showed that more than half the members would reopen under level 3. But he said 73 percent were nervous about reopening. 

"Carrier transmission is one of the issues that causes us most concern and we need to be realistic about it. There are key questions that are continually going unanswered.

"Our members are being asked all the time about cases overseas where young children have contracted, become ill and even died from COVID-19.

"We don't have all of the answers to this yet. The Government and Ministry of Education are playing down these risks, and parents need to be aware of these risks."

He said while the latest results of new COVID-19 cases in New Zealand is promising - there were no new cases reported on Monday - too much has been done on "trust and inconclusive evidence". 

"We need to stop playing Russian roulette with our children."

He said the Marist College cluster should be looked at as part of a "comprehensive view of COVID-19 carrier transmission in New Zealand" to create some certainty for ECEs and other schools. 

Reynolds said ECEs get funding three times a year and some are getting insurance pay-outs on revenue losses. But they are missing out on some funding because most centres are not charging parents during the lockdown. 

"We hope that support for ECE centres won't be forgotten in the post-COVID economy."

He said looking ahead, the Government needs to be transparent about the information it has. 

The Government is set to announce more details about alert level 2 on Thursday, but Reynolds said the information "needs to be available right now about level 2 and level 1". 

ECEs need to know what alert level 2 will look like so they can prepare, he said. 

"Safe distancing was increased to three square metres per child under level 3 - but what happens at level 2?" 

"If this spacing remains, it artificially reduces all centres' license sizes, and that leads to staff redundancies, a reduction in revenue, children missing out on early learning opportunities, and some centres would close."

Labour MP Jo Luxton acknowledged Reynolds' concerns but said she has also been "hearing from the sector different opinions to you". 

Perry Rush, chief executive of the New Zealand Principals' Federation, praised the Government's response to the coronavirus, telling the committee it has done well considering the circumstances. 

"I want to sing the song of their excellent performance over the past weeks... I think they should be recognised for moving at pace with excellent service at a time of significant international crisis, and that cannot be underestimated." 

Last month the Government unveiled $87 million to get hard copy education packages and electronic devices to students to be able to learn from home.  

The Government also funded two TV channels to broadcast education-related content to homes.