Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Staggered starts, alternate days as Auckland primary schools reopen

It’s been exactly three months since Auckland went into lockdown – now primary and intermediate students are finally being welcomed back to class.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced last week that all students would be allowed back to school from tomorrow.

While some schools expect most kids back, others think very few will return as anxiety about the virus remains high – despite all onsite staff now being vaccinated.

For those kids who do return, school will look very different. Mandatory masking for Years 4 and up, ventilation of classrooms and social distancing are among measures being taken to stop Covid spreading among students, who can’t be vaccinated if they’re younger than 12.

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Most primary and intermediate schools will be staggering classes in some form to reduce crowding.

Auckland Primary Principals’ Association president Stephen Lethbridge said there wasn’t much data yet around schools’ plans as people were so busy preparing.

“There are staged reopening options across the region – a myriad of options tailored to the community they serve. There will be reduced numbers and hybrid models of face-to-face and remote learning.”

St Thomas’s School in Kohimarama is reopening as normal with all students welcomed back, principal Michael Maher said. The only difference was they couldn’t mingle as usual.

Maher told the Herald they were fortunate to have a big site and a new build completed at the end of 2020, which meant they had spare classrooms. The school was broken up into junior, middle and senior schools and each had their own outdoor areas.

Flexible learning areas had been divided up using furniture to ensure classes stayed apart.

“We think it’s as safe as it could be and we just really want to get our students back into school and our community to get back to work and get on with their lives before Christmas,” Maher said.

The school’s online newsletter said they had considered a staggered return but it threw up logistical challenges, particularly for parents.

Maher said although Covid could still hit the school, the community was highly vaccinated and staff jab rates were at 100 per cent.

The return would help reduce children’s anxiety and iron out challenges before next year.

“We’re hoping … it’ll give some sort of normality back into school because Covid’s not going away. Either we do it this year or we do it in February.”

In Ōtara, Rongomai School will also be allowing students back full-time – there’s no need to stagger classes as just 18 per cent of students are expected back tomorrow.

Principal Paeariki Johnson said distance learning would continue and some staff would also continue to work from home.

“Some of my staff are anxious and it appears that 80 per cent of our whānau are too. Developing a school plan to meet the needs of all tamariki (at home and school) was not easy but nonetheless, we have one that’s ready to roll out tomorrow.”

Johnson was grateful schools had been given flexibility – she previously had said staggered start times wouldn’t work for some families with several children.

Lou Reddy, principal of Wesley Primary School in Mt Roskill, said he was shocked to find as many as 44 per cent of students would be back tomorrow, based on a survey of parents.

Wesley was allowing all students back every day but their start, finish and break times would all be staggered so students wouldn’t mingle, he said.

The suburb has a lower vaccination rate than much of central Auckland but it’s improving partly thanks to a vaccination drive run by the ARK (Act of Roskill Kindness) Project.

“I believe some of the hesitancy around coming back to school for our whānau and our students is the lower vaccination rates in our community and the increase in the number of positive cases around our Puketāpapa area,” Reddy said.

A vaccination event called Shot Famz was planned for November 20, to be held at the Wesley Community Centre on Sandringham Rd.

Wesley needed 350 people to get vaccinated to tick over the 90 per cent mark, Reddy said – he believed that milestone would give more families confidence to send their kids back.

At Rowandale School in Manurewa, principal Karl Vasau told families in a video update that the best thing for children’s social, physical and emotional was to get some face-to-face time with their teacher or learning support coordinator.

But he acknowledged there were still huge numbers of cases in the community, particularly in Manurewa, so parents were under no obligation to send their kids back.

Rowandale will be welcoming all students back on alternate days. Children would be grouped in bubbles, with ventilation, social distancing and other safe practices like mask-wearing for Years 4 and up.

The staggered approach would help limit the potential spread of Covid if it came through the gates, Vasau said.

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