PM Jacinda Ardern says schools don't have to punish students who won't wear masks but they can choose to

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says schools don't have to punish students for not wearing masks despite the Ministry of Education strongly recommending schools implement and enforce a mask policy. 

Last week, the Government updated its COVID-19 advice for schools and is now "strongly" recommending schools review and "enforce" a mask-wearing policy as COVID-19 cases rise and children prepare to return to classes after the holidays. 

According to an update released on the Ministry of Education's website last Thursday, associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti has written to school boards "outlining the Government’s strong recommendation to review and enforce a mask-wearing policy as much as practicable".

It said both the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education "strongly recommend" all schools amend their policies for the first four weeks of the upcoming term 3 "to require mask wearing in all indoors for students year 4 and above, where it will not have a significant impact on teaching and learning".

Speaking with AM on Monday Jacinda Ardern said the Government updated its advice after listening to those on the frontlines. 

"We were really open-minded on this issue. We in fact went back multiple times to education in health and said, 'Look if you believe we should bring that mandate back we are happy to do that. Do what you think will be in the best outcomes of our learners and our schools and our health outcomes," Ardern told AM. 

"And they came back to us and said., 'Look, we believe we should strongly encourage their use but still leave schools to implement the policies themselves." 

AM co-host Melissa Chan-Green then questioned whether the changes would be confusing for students, pointing out the rules had changed from mandatory mask use up until April, to mask use being encouraged in May and finally in July it being encouraged with punishments for those who don't.

But the Prime Minister pushed back on this, saying schools aren't required to punish students who don't wear masks. 

"No, that's not actually correct. We, of course, have our settings and from the Government's perspective when we move those settings we change some of those rules, so of course, we don't have mandated mask use in schools. We have not said you must punish students if they don't use masks or anything of that nature."

But Chan-Green then pointed out the Ministry of Education's advice is to enforce the school's mask rules in the same way sunblock, sun hat and uniforms rules are enforced. 

"For any child or young person who is failing to comply with the school policy (who is not exempted), you will be able to apply or agree your own school policies to manage this behaviour, in the same way you might enforce sun hat and sunblock rules and uniform rules," the Ministry of Education said in its update. 

But the Prime Minister hit back, saying whether students are punished or not is up to the school. 

"Ultimately here we have said we are not making it compulsory but we are strongly encouraging use," Ardern said. 

When Chan-Green said the rules were "quite confusing", Ardern hit back saying "she doesn't believe it is". 

"In many cases schools have continued to use them all the way through," Ardern said. 

It's a view backed up by Remuera Intermediate Principal Kyle Brewerton who told AM for the most part there will be no issue.

"The kids are pretty comfortable wearing them and there's no real problem."

Brewerton said some students do have exemptions or make the personal decision not to wear a mask, and in those cases there are no consequences.

"I think that's the key difference between not having a mandate as such, I think the fact that we are taking the stance where we do enforce that mask-wearing," Brewerton said.

"Those with exemptions, they've chosen to make that decision and that's fine."

The principal told AM students have worn masks at school before - so term three of masking up is nothing new.

Brewerton said in situations like school assemblies, kids are provided masks to further encourage their use.

"Because we are in an enclosed space, we have all the windows open but when you're bringing 450 people together you do want to use some common sense."

He encouraged those who take issue with their children wearing a mask at school to "talk to your local school" because most are very accommodating and will make it work.