Schools seek talks on possible closures

Glendowie College principal Richard Dykes wants the Ministry of Education to start talking to...
Glendowie College principal Richard Dykes wants the Ministry of Education to start talking to schools about plans for possible school closures. Photo: NZ Herald
School principals are seeking urgent talks with the Ministry of Education over contingency plans for closing schools if the coronavirus pandemic worsens.

Principals Federation president Perry Rush said he would meet tomorrow with ministry deputy head Katrina Casey to discuss whether schools could provide schoolwork for children to do at home if schools close.

Auckland Secondary Schools Principals Association head Richard Dykes said principals urgently needed much better advice on issues such as school camps, balls, sports events and "preparing for school closures".

"Australia is talking to schools about possible closures. It's not okay to say let's not talk about it," he said.

"We have to hope it's not going to happen, but we need to start planning seriously.

"I'm not hearing about what schools are going to do to handle it if that happens, and it's not good enough."

Casey said the ministry was continuing to work closely with the Ministry of Health and would send out another bulletin to principals on Monday morning.

"It is important to note that the decision to close a school will rest with Health authorities, primarily through the Medical Officers of Health," she said.

A few schools have cancelled school camps. St Mary's Catholic School in Papakura wrote to parents at the weekend advising that it had cancelled a school camp due to start on Tuesday and a gala day planned for Sunday.

Dykes said other schools have cancelled overseas trips, and Rush said several Māori principals have pulled out of a planned joint conference of Māori and Aboriginal principals in Australia.

This year's Polyfest, which is due to draw thousands of school students to the Manukau Sports Bowl from Wednesday, looks likely to be an early casualty as its board meets on Monday to decide whether the event can go ahead.

Its acting chairman, Aorere College principal Greg Pierce, said there were "strong indications from sources" that the Government was likely to follow Australia's decision to ban public gatherings of more than 500 people.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Saturday that general advice on "mass gatherings" would be issued this week.

School Sports NZ chief executive Garry Carnachan said he was waiting for that advice before deciding whether to go ahead with inter-school sports including this year's secondary schools summer sports tournament due to start on March 30.

"We really can't do anything till then," he said. "I've had four or five principals talking to me today, so as soon as we can get the Government announcement we can get the message out."

Rush said he was fielding many questions from principals asking whether to go ahead with school camps, and so far the official advice has been "business as usual".

"Lots of schools are coming back to us saying that having 60 kids away at an isolated camp is actually a safer place for them to be," he said.

But he said it would not be easy to provide schoolwork for all of the country's 800,000 school students if schooled closed.

"That needs some careful consideration from the ministry. I'm having a conversation with them tomorrow about this very matter," he said.

"We have 100,000 students who are not connected digitally, so it's a difficult thing to ask can the teachers work remotely, and I think the ministry needs to be clear about what the expectation of schools is in that situation."

Ministry of Health advice is that any "close contact" of a person with coronavirus, including students living in the same house as an adult with the virus, must self-isolate for 14 days.

Two children of an Auckland family where the parents contracted coronavirus in Italy, a girl at Westlake Girls' High School and a boy at Westlake Boys', have stayed at home since their mother tested positive for the virus on March 3.

Westlake Boys' High School headmaster David Ferguson said the 14 days would end this week but he did not yet have advice on whether to let his student back.

"The advice we have been given is that we would be advised when the student can return to school," he said.

"My intention is to contact Auckland Regional Public Health tomorrow to get an update."

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