A Teaching Council call for all schools to close immediately has shocked the main teachers’ groups.
The call, made in an open letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issued by Teaching Council chief executive Lesley Hoskin at 12.47am today, came as a surprise to the Principals’ Federation and both teacher unions.
Principals’ Federation president Perry Rush was not aware of it this morning.
NZ Educational Institute president Liam Rutherford also had not heard of it when contacted by the Herald, and said NZEI continued to support the Ministry of Education’s five-level plan to close schools only when cases of coronavirus were found.
Post Primary Teachers’ Association president Jack Boyle said PPTA wanted to protect the safety of teachers by allowing them to teach online from home, but felt that schools must remain “open for instruction” at least online, and should remain open physically for children of health staff and other key workers.
Hoskin’s letter to Ardern said the Teaching Council had been “communicating with teachers over the weekend and we’ve listened to their concerns’.
“They want to support you and Aotearoa to flatten the curve. However, they want you to know, if you do not move now, they cannot see how they can protect their learners, themselves nor their loved ones at home,” the letter said.
“As the voice of teachers, the Council, on behalf of all teachers, implores you to act now and to move to Alert Level-4, closing early childhood centres and schools.
“The Council supports you and your leadership of Aotearoa, but please – help us to keep our tamariki and rangatahi safe. We can only do that, if you allow us to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe too.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has introduced an alert system as the country fights Covid-19.
The Ministry of Education said on Friday that it was using a five-level “decision tool” to guide closures of schools and early childhood centres:
• Level 1: When a student or staff member has no symptoms but close contact with a confirmed case – track and trace.
• Level 2: When a student or staff member has symptoms and close contact with a confirmed case or tests positive – close school temporarily or for at least 72 hours
• Level 3: When there are cases from multiple families in the same school that could be community transmission – 14 day closure.
• Level 4: When there is confirmed community transmission but contained to a geographical area – close all schools and centres in that location for 14 days.
• Level 5: Community transmission on a national level – close all schools and centres for at least 14 days.
Confusingly, the next day Ardern announced a separate four-level national alert system and said New Zealand is at alert level 2, meaning that people over 70 and others with high-risk conditions should stay at home but schools would remain open.
Rutherford said NZEI would “continue to work alongside the Ministry of Education and be guided by the advice of the Ministry of Health”.
“We do acknowledge that we are in a situation of heightened anxiety. That is why the Ministry of Education clearly set out what type of scenario would lead to what type of school closure, and we think that is the best way forward,” he said.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins also said there was no need to change course.
“As the PM announced, we are currently at Alert Level 2. Our regional and national decisions are based on this alert system. We are prepared to move quickly if the alert level changes,” he said.
Boyle said PPTA met over the weekend to discuss concerns for the safety of teachers, particularly after Ardern’s advice that people over 70 should stay at home.
“Relief teachers in NZ by and large are from that target group [age 70-plus],” he said.
“So a whole lot of schools will be trying to find people from the pool of relief teachers and working through the consequences of that.”
He said the decision to ask over-70s to stay home implied that New Zealand was already in the “community transmission” stage of the pandemic.
“If there is community transmission, then the argument is that why shouldn’t all teachers in all schools, not just the over-70s, be working from home?”
However he said schools should remain “open for instruction” at least online, and should stay open physically for the children of people working in the health sector, supermarkets and other key services.
“You can’t say across the board every school should be closed,” he said.
Hoskin acknowledged the important role teachers and leaders within the education sector played in New Zealand – especially during difficult times.
“They do what’s needed and have always led in times of national crisis. They have done so during earthquakes, the Pike River disaster and the Christchurch shootings.
“They take their leadership role seriously,” she said.