Teachers’ non-critical status spells ‘chaos’

Auckland Secondary Schools’ Principals’ Association president Steve Hargreaves. Times photo Wayne Martin

Auckland Secondary Schools’ Principals’ Association president Steve Hargreaves has spoken out about schools being excluded from the Government’s Close Contact Exemption Scheme which means they can’t access the Government-supplied rapid antigen tests (RATs).

And National’s Covid-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop and Education spokesperson Erica Stanford have waded into the fray saying the Government’s failure to order enough RATs is causing chaos for New Zealand’s children and schools,

“I totally agree that teachers need to be included in the critical worker testing scheme,” said Hargreaves, who is the principal at Macleans College.

“Every principal I have spoken to is of the same mind. The community needs schools to be open for face-to-face learning and having RATs available will allow schools to keep staff at school.”

Hargreaves told the Times the issues facing schools this year – apart from managing Covid cases – are staffing in key subjects and providing the full educational experience with sport and EOTC [education outside the classroom] around the Covid Protection Framework [CPF] restrictions.

“The sector lost a small percentage of teachers to the mandate but, because some subjects are so difficult to staff, even a small number of teachers is crucial,” Hargreaves said.

“For example, being unable to find a workshop technology teacher means 120 students miss out on the subject.

“Having said that, the year has started really well. Attendance is over 98 per cent, the students are really pleased to be back on campus and the atmosphere in school is very positive.”

Bishop said multiple schools have contacted him and Stanford expressing concern they’re not part of the Government’s Close Contact Exemption Scheme.

“The Government’s overly bureaucratic close contact scheme doesn’t define schools as ‘critical’, apparently except for in a situation where there wouldn’t be enough teachers in the school to cater to the children of critical workers.

“Creating multiple, complex layers of eligibility is an admission by the Government that they do not have enough rapid tests to go round.

“Incredibly, some schools have even secured their own supply of rapid tests only to be told that they can’t use them for return-to-work purposes – truly a perverse and wrong-headed policy outcome.”

Stanford says the return-to-work provisions are important for keeping schools open and kids learning, and access to rapid tests is urgently needed to keep children and teachers safe.

“On the same day Ministry of Education officials are emailing principals to say they’re not included in the scheme, Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall is telling Parliament that schools are included. It’s emblematic of a Government that doesn’t have a plan and is making things up on the fly.

“We’ve been calling for the Government to make rapid tests available in every school. With over 1000 cases a day, Omicron is spreading quickly so the need has never been more urgent.”

Meanwhile, ACT Leader David Seymour on Friday said the Government was “all over the place when it comes to rapid antigen tests for teachers and it’s time for clarity”.

“The Government should legalise any test that can be used in Australia for immediate importation. At present, Australia allows 26 different types of home use test and 67 point-of-care tests. We should simply say tomorrow that New Zealanders are free to import any type of test approved in Australia.”

Meanwhile, a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) spokesperson told the Times this week that schools that do not have enough staff able to attend on site to supervise children who need to be there, can access the close contact exemption scheme “so that critical supply chains and other key sectors can continue to operate”.

“They may, therefore, choose to register now, and will need to assess whether they need to have a close contact come back to work in order to continue to supervise children who need to be there,” the MBIE spokesperson said.

“It’s important to note that when a business or service self-assess whether they are critical, using guidance on business.govt.nz, to see if, or what parts of their service, qualify for the scheme, this process is automatic.

“Once they have carried out the self-assessment process and determined that they would qualify, then they register a self-declaration that they are a critical service on the Close Contact Exemption Scheme Critical Services Register (the Register) on business.govt.nz.

The scheme is not intended to enable the attendance of all staff and students – schools have planned for delivering hybrid learning in a range of scenarios when teachers or students are having to isolate at home, MBIE said.

“This scheme is only for those parents and caregivers who can’t have their children at home.

“In the limited cases where school staff have been identified as close contacts and need to return to work to supervise children who need to be there, Rapid Antigen Test kits will be provided free of charge to them by the Ministry of Health through the close contact exemption.

“Registered organisations (including schools) are not provided with Rapid Antigen Test kits in advance, nor are they able to access bulk supplies through the close contact exemption scheme.”