The head of a principals’ association is worried new Government guidance on masking in classrooms leaves schools in a tricky position. Photo / Sylvie Whinray
The head of a principals’ association is worried new Government guidance on masking in classrooms leaves schools in a tricky position – with some requiring pupils to cover up, while others take a looser approach.
A prominent epidemiologist has echoed that concern, and also renewed calls for classroom mandates to be reinstated – something Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern today said she’d have “no hesitation” in doing so if the sector called for it.
Ahead of the start of term three today, many schools posted social media messages encouraging parents to see their children brought along masks.
That followed a newsletter sent out to schools from the Ministry of Education last week, recommending students Year 4 and up should wear masks for the next four weeks while indoors and where it wouldn’t have a “significant impact on teaching and learning”.
Principals’ groups told the Herald that most schools had opted to heed that request.
For Rotorua Lakes High School, the updated advice made little difference, given it had already been requiring students wear masks unless they had a valid medical exemption.
“It’s actually served us very well – we haven’t had to close or roster home as yet,” principal Jon Ward said.
But the updated guidance had put the school “less out on a limb” over its stance, and brought it back into mainstream messaging that masks were the right thing for schools, he said.
Some schools, meanwhile, have emphasised to parents that masks weren’t mandatory.
One South Island secondary school told parents it had “decided to continue with voluntary mask wearing” this term, pointing out that most of its students had already been infected.
Another Bay of Plenty primary school posted it was “parental choice” whether their child wore a mask.
“We will not be policing mask wearing, but we will be supporting this recommendation and we will have masks available for children should they need them,” it told parents.
Auckland Secondary Schools’ Principals’ Association president Greg Pierce was aware of a “small number” of local schools that had introduced their own mask mandates, but most had chosen to strongly recommend them instead.
Still, the Orewa College principal didn’t feel the Government’s direction to schools was clear enough, and placed them in “too much of a difficult situation”.
“It shouldn’t be up to the 2500 individual schools around the country to make up their own rules,” he said.
“I’d have thought that if the evidence was sufficient enough [to support mask use], it’s sufficient enough to make a house order and enforce it.”
Newmarket School principal Wendy Kofoed, who serves as Auckland Primary Principals Association president, said about three-quarters of schools in the group had kept mask protocols in place, or brought them back last term.
For other schools, the ministry’s last-minute advice might have caught them off guard.
“Last Friday was pretty short notice to start to think through how you’re going to manage it.”
However, she thought the move was helpful for schools.
“The ministry has actually been supporting the wearing of masks – and now they’ve just come out with a stronger statement.”
Secondary Principals Association president and Papatoetoe High School principal Vaughan Couillault wasn’t aware of much push-back to it among his colleagues.
Asked if he felt the ministry had struck the right balance, Couillault said: “Absolutely. From a school leadership perspective, it’s about getting a feel from your own community on what’s right for you and your students.”
Earlier today, Ardern told RNZ she’d been interested to hear some principals express concern about masks not being mandated.
“Because equally, we’ve had it expressed to us, concern about moving back to a mandate.”
Ardern said that, while she had no hesitation about reintroducing a mandate, the Government was keeping open-minded on the issue as it sought feedback.
She said the overwhelming view of schools had been for the Government to strongly encourage mask use and provide them, but still allow schools to manage the way masking was implemented.
Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker welcomed the advice, but questioned why there shouldn’t be national consistency across schools.
“Overall, I’m very positive about the move – but I just wonder why we’re leaving quite a bit of discretion,” he said.
“The evidence supports the value of mask use in schools, so why should some students and their families miss out on this benefit?”
Baker said he would have rather the Government introduced a uniform mandate – if not require monitoring and evaluation of what schools were doing around masking.
A Ministry of Health spokesperson said any decisions around mask mandates in schools were made by ministers, based on advice from the Public Health Agency (PHA) and the Ministry of Education.
They noted appropriately fitted masks had been shown to reduce the risk of transmitting respiratory infections.
In the meantime, the PHA was “continually” reviewing our Covid-19 response as the pandemic evolved.
Sean Teddy, the Ministry of Education’s operations and integrations leader, said: “All schools and kura will have their own plan that best meets the needs of all their students and staff, including the option to make masks compulsory if they consider that is best for them.”
“We will continue to supply medical grade masks for teachers to schools that need them.”