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Secondary school pupils in years 11-13 who live in Covid alert level 3 areas will be able to return to the classroom after Labour weekend.
Education and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins made the announcement this afternoon as Covid numbers in Auckland remain high, saying pupils could go back to school on October 26.
Auckland is at the centre of the Delta outbreak, and has been heavily restricted at alert level 4 or 3 for the past 10 weeks.
Community cases have also been recorded in neighbouring regions Waikato, which is currently at level 3, and Northland (level 2). The rest of the country remains at level 2.
Hipkins said he was "acutely" aware of Covid's impact on students and stresses were more evident by the day. Secondary students need to prepare for exams and that was why they have been prioritised to go back to school earlier.
Students in years 11, 12 and 13 will return to classroom from next Tuesday in alert level 3 areas to complete NCEA exams and assessments.
They must wear masks and staff would need a negative test before returning. Face coverings on school transport will be mandatory.
The Minister said the Government was "not ruling out" students in years 1 to 10 returning before Christmas and will consider health advice on Tuesday next week.
"For years 1 to 10 the picture is more complex. I'm not completely ruling out these students in level 3 regions being able to return before the end of the year but if they do, we'll need to be satisfied there are sufficient processes in place to minimise any risk."
Exams will proceed in alert level 3 areas, and Auckland students are eligible for "unexpected event" grade.
Students in Auckland, Waikato and Northland who cannot attend exams will receive the "unexpected event" grade, based on their school work earlier in the year.
He believed it was safe for senior students to go back to school and classrooms weren't much different from a large workplace in terms of the level of risk.
However, pupils more at risk of Covid were advised to stay home.
Further decisions on schooling for Years 1 - 10 and early childhood would be announced next Tuesday. Education outside in warmer months is possible, he said.
Hipkins said they wanted to minimise pupils on site while vaccination rates need to increase, and there were logistical challenges for the school, such as teachers who have children aged under 12 who cannot yet return.
Younger people were latest to join the vaccination campaign and their rates continue to be the lowest, he said. The Government is making sure schools can deliver vaccines on-site with the help of health providers.
60 new community cases
The number of new Covid-19 cases dropped to 60 today but Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield warned that infections were likely to keep rising.
Bloomfield said public health teams across the country have "resourced up" and would be on standby if cases rose.
There are 60 new community cases of Covid-19 to report in New Zealand today - 56 in Auckland and four in Waikato.
Yesterday, a record number of community cases was reported - 94 - since the pandemic began in March last year.
Bloomfield said there were 22 cases that had not yet been linked.
Forty-two people are in Auckland hospitals today, and one person is in a Waikato hospital. Five are in ICU or a high dependency unit.
The Ministry of Health said there has been an increase in cases on Auckland's North Shore and New Lynn.
Bloomfield highlighted the North Shore suburbs of Bayswater, Rosedale and Redvale - the suburb where the now infamous influencer party took place.
Of the four new cases in Waikato - two are household contacts already in quarantine and the other two are closely linked.
There are also two cases at the border to report today and they are in managed isolation and quarantine facilities.
Bloomfield said case numbers are expected to double around every 10 - 12 days. The number of unlinked cases are expected to grow too, but they are not quite so worried about where they came from, he said.
Hipkins said he wanted to remind everyone in the South Island that things can change quite quickly, and they remain in alert level 2 as a form of protection. He said there is still a lot of movement between the two islands.
Bloomfield said the spread of Covid to South Island was not imminent.
- NZ Herald and ODT Online