Physical distancing not expected for early learning and schools upon return

Children at early learning centres and primary schools won't be expected to maintain physical distancing when they return to school next week, Education Minister Chris Hipkins says.

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Mr Hipkins appeared on TVNZ1’s Q+A with Jack Tame. Source: Q+A

Mr Hipkins told TVNZ1's Q+A host Jack Tame that parents have been "very, very cautious, they've been keeping their kids home, keeping their kids safe" amid the Covid-19 crisis. 

It was announced today schools will return from Monday, May 18 under Level 2. At Level 3, only some students were able to return. 

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Chris Hipkins is urging for students and parents to be “reasonable” with home learning expectations. Source: Breakfast

"My message to parents is that we wouldn't be moving to Level 2 if we thought that that was going to put people at undue risk," Mr Hipkins said. 

"We're moving to Level 2 because we're confident that the risk of Covid-19 coming through the school gate - or through the gate of the early learning services, the gate of the tertiary education institution - is very, very low in the first place."

He said staff and students with higher health needs who were concerned about returning to school next Monday should speak to the school first, but added that there are "some public health measures that can be put in place to protect those people."

On physical distancing, children in early learning services and primary school were not expected to maintain the requirement.

"I think asking kids under the age of five to be doing that is asking a bit much of them," Mr Hipkins said.

"In primary schools, what we're saying is if you can stay away from the warm breath zone of the people around you, then that's certainly going to be a good precautionary measure.

"We've got to be realistic, though... It's not always going to be possible to maintain physical distancing in a school environment."

He said the Ministry of Health has advised that "if the schools continue to do the other things that we're asking them to do, then the risk there remains very, very low."

There are "no further plans" to change school term dates and holidays, he said, adding that everyone "will deserve a break" by the end of term two.

"I think people will start to feel a bit burnt out if we keep shifting the term dates around ... I'd be very, very reluctant to make further adjustments to school term dates."

Mr Hipkins said he was waiting on further advice from NZQA on what options are available to support students, including whether or not to allow for credit inclusion, which would allow students in their final year who just missed out on university entrance to be given a pass.

"We don't want to be seen to be lowering standards for one cohort of students, but there are some things, whilst preserving the credibility and the standing of our qualification, to make sure we're supporting young people coming out the other end of the school system if they have been disadvantaged because of this situation around Covid-19."

Mr Hipkins said there is going to be "a bit of a bumpy ride" for some state schools which had a high concentration of international students.

He added that the Government is looking into what can be done at the border for the economy while maintaining public health, including international education. 

"It may well be possible to build a two-week quarantine ... into an international education programme.

“It's very ambitious to have it in place in time for the second semester this year. I think it’s more likely to be for the beginning of next year."