Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: Frustration as principals struggle to find clear rules on handling Omicron

School principals grappling with key changes to the Covid-19 response rules just days before they welcome students back want more clarity from officials – and fast.

The Government has made changes with how schools deal with Covid, including increasing isolation time for confirmed cases, scrapping the casual plus contact, and treating vaccinated and non-vaccinated confirmed cases the same.

It has also introduced mandated boosters for eligible teachers by February 4.

But principals spoken to by the Herald say they are struggling to find the new rules or find the changes complicated and mixed with outdated information.

Macleans College principal Steven Hargreaves heard about the changes via a daily bulletin and zoom call but has struggled to find the updated information anywhere online.

He said principals had been “hung out to dry” with little clarity. He had 500 students already on campus and 2000 more due to start next week.

“It is frustrating because we have heard verbally of these changes but everything on the website is outdated information.

“I have had 500 students here this week and if I had a parent call tonight and say their child has Covid I need to know what to do immediately.”

“We need to know exactly what now constitutes a close contact and have those letters ready to go to those affected straight away.

“We can’t be waiting for a call from officials or trying to call them.”

Hargreaves, who is also the president of the Auckland Secondary School Principals’ Association, said the new information needed to get to the right people with urgency.

He had just spent $6000 on N95 masks for his teaching staff because he heard a report on the radio that they were now needed for teachers.

“Then I looked online for the updated information on masks and couldn’t find anything new on N95 masks.”

Mt Albert Grammar school headmaster Patrick Drumm said the new changes were complicated and took some deciphering.

The school heads were in meetings this week to go through the changes and plan how the school of 3000 would best function in the next few months.

“We have started going through the information but it is quite complex and deals with primary schools as well secondary,” Drumm said.

One of the new recommendations was that schools separate corridors into two lanes.

“Some of these ideas might work in smaller schools but in a school like ours of 3000 it is harder to implement.”

“We are the second biggest school in New Zealand and we have never been spoken to about the practicalities of what they suggest, which is frustrating.”

“It feels like these decisions are made in Wellington without the thought of the scale we are dealing with in Auckland.”

Drumm is speaking from experience, with Mt Albert Grammar dealing with several positive cases and resulting closures last year.

“We are quite relaxed because we dealt with this last year and we are expecting cases and know we will have large chunks of people to be off-site for periods of time.

“We know we will be short-staffed and we are going to find new ways of keeping the school open.”

Both Hargreaves and Drumm said despite the frustrations with the roll-out of the updated rules the schools would be doing all they could to keep students safe and at school where possible.

Drumm said there would be a rotation of year groups so students would have one day a week at home to free up teaching staff.

They had even considered calling on parents to supervise classes if a teacher was at home isolating and the school was short-staffed.

“There are no relievers and parents can supervise for 10 days as a non-registered teacher which could be a useful stop-gap,” he said.

“It is a process because there are police checks but it is an option.”

Drumm said if needed a parent could supervise in class while the teacher taught online from home.

“If a teacher is isolating but well enough to teach they can take an online class from home with the students attending class in person.”

“We will find new ways to make this hybrid type model work.”

Drumm said he did not anticipate any issue with the booster mandate for teachers.

“I think it goes without saying if you are double vaccinated there is no question you would get the booster so I don’t think that will be a problem.”

Hargreaves said Macleans College would also implement rostered learning and alternate days.

“We know that people are going to get sick with Omicron and that teachers and students will get sick but we want to keep teaching face to face wherever possible.

“It’s more effective and better for students to be engaged in person because of all of the emotional and social benefits of being on campus.”

As well as academics, schools were also prioritising the wellbeing of students and the social aspect of school.

“We are looking at how we welcome students back safely and how we talk about lockdown and concerns,” Hargreaves said.

“We will be making sure the house deans and counsellors are across what students are concerned about.”

Keeping safe at school

• Covid-19 vaccinations for all staff and eligible students

• Maintain physical distancing as much as possible

• Encourage good hygiene practices and use cough and sneeze etiquette

• Maintain appropriate cleaning regimes, including cleaning and disinfecting high touch surfaces, as well as regular cleaning

• Ensure students or staff members with Covid-19 symptoms get a Covid-19 test and remain at home until a negative result is received and they are symptom-free for 24 hours

• Reduce mixing of students and staff

• Follow public health advice (testing, self-isolation) for any cases and contacts within your school or kura community.

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