NZ Herald: When back to school isn’t back to normal

Article originally published on NZ Herald, 01/03/21

If you don’t have children at school, you’d be forgiven for thinking everything is back to normal.

But for those of us who do have children in daycare or school, the start of the new school-term is a stark reminder that all is not well.

I have two school aged children, my nine-year-old son and almost six-year-old daughter.

My son, who is in year five, spends all day wearing a facemask in the burning heat and humidity of the Auckland summer.

He comes home with a flushed and itchy face, exhausted because he feels he’s not getting enough oxygen into his system.

Not one to complain, he puts on a brave face, telling me how excited he is to be back at school and how much he loves his teacher and friends.

My daughter, who basically missed out on her first year of school because of lockdowns, has had to find her way to her classroom on her own. Not only are we not allowed on the school grounds, but her older brother isn’t allowed to walk her to her class.

At break time, both the playgrounds and the field are cordoned off and they can’t be used across year groups. If you’re a senior you’re not allowed on the playground at all.

During lunch some year-groups have to sit outside in the heat of the day, for socially distancing purposes, without shelter, eating their lunch. Last week my son came home thrilled because he’d earned the privilege of sitting under shelter at lunch time.

Specialist teaching at the school is no longer available. The PE teacher can’t work across year groups, choir has been canceled and after-school clubs are no longer offered. There is no longer extension learning on offer.

The drinking fountains, where kids refill their water bottles during the day, have been closed.

An upset parent told me that her daughter forgot her drink bottle, and because of COVID rules, there were no drinking cups in her classroom. Instead, her little girl had to go through the whole day, in the heat of summer, without drinking water.

Assemblies are canceled. Last year there were no awards handed out, ignoring the hard work many kids had put in at home. Camps and leavers’ celebrations were also canceled.

And worst of all has been the impact on education.

Many of our friends’ children couldn’t do Year 1 and were instead placed straight into Year 2. They now have children who have started Year 3 with only one year of uninterrupted schooling.

We are the lucky ones. Our daughter’s birthday just missed the cut-off, meaning she is still in year one. I can’t comprehend her going straight into year two if she had been a month older.

I want to be clear, none of this is the fault of the school, the teaching staff, or the principal. They are working their hardest to make sure they are meeting the rules and to allay the fears of concerned parents.

Their communication, planning and proactiveness needs to be commended, but the truth is they’ve been made to become public health experts and this is simply not fair.

That is why there’s a stark difference between schools. Many schools require a negative PCR test and won’t accept RATS for a close contact to return to school, while other schools encourage RATs.

Some schools even say children who test negative still aren’t allowed to return to school unless they are symptom free. Remember that a common cough can drag on for weeks.

There are examples of whole year groups being put into homeschooling because one child has tested positive, while in other instances the classmates of a child testing positive can continue going to school.

Some private schools have even given up, telling parents that they no longer require a negative test if their kids appear healthy.

When I recently asked on social media what parents were experiencing at their schools, I was overwhelmed by the feedback.

I learned it’s tough not only in school, but also in early childhood education and at some
universities, who are now even enforcing vaccination for online attendance, with additional rules around dorm rooms and interactions.

With our five-month-old baby still at home, I hadn’t given much thought about what daycare looked like, but many have rules that include no singing, no heating food, no yogurts, no playdough and no shared activities.

Like schools, parents can’t take their children to their classroom, leaving many teary toddlers being handed over to caregivers covered in masks who do their best to give them reassurance.

I know how much my baby relies on my facial expressions during the day, so it breaks my heart knowing that a whole generation of young children have their caregivers hidden behind masks.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m double vaccinated, my kids are vaccinated, and I understand the reason for mask wearing. But I also want to know what the pathway out of this is.

When will we feel comfortable to allow our educators to engage with our children again? When will I be able to walk my daughter to her classroom?

Our children are paying a high price for the level of disruption they are currently experiencing, not only in their education, but also their emotional and mental wellbeing.

I was told in a recent meeting that close to 50 percent of Year 11, 12 and 13s have not returned to schooling in South Auckland. Surely this can’t be acceptable?

We are setting up an entire generation to leave school with substandard educational outcomes.

You may wonder why I’m posing these questions in the eye of the storm. But with Sweden having experienced an estimated 50,000 cases per day in February, it’s important that we understand what it looks like in other countries. 

When I asked my friends in Sweden what schooling is like there, I got a very different response. Other than children staying home when unwell, school is largely back to normal and have been largely normal through the entire pandemic.

Yes, there are disruptions when staff are sick and, in some cases, closures, but it’s a risk they are prepared to take with Omicron being mild and vaccinations high.

Neither staff nor children are wearing face masks because the concern for the children’s wellbeing outweighs the actual risk from catching COVID.

There is widespread use of RATs both for staff and children. Surveillance testing is done with rigor and access to tests are ubiquitous.

Meanwhile in New Zealand, at a friend of mines child’s school, close to 30 teachers are either home isolating or are at home with COVID. This means significant disruption to his child schooling including finishing early each day.

Therefore, we must start considering our school infrastructure and those who work in it as essential. We must ensure all schools have easy access to RATs, something which I’m told is still inconsistent and that they are treated as essential workers.

It’s incredible to me that we are putting all this onus on our schools, yet we make it so difficult to access the tools they need.

We can’t continue like this. The price is simply too high. We need our young people to feel happy, safe and secure so they can get on with their education, but right now we are failing.

We need to strike a new balance, and as a first step we should look at what other countries are doing to respond to the actual risk presented from omicron.

But we also need to reframe the narrative and create a positive learning environment which feels more normal for our children. And we need to ensure that we get all kids back to school, where they can learn and play.

After all, that is what our children deserve.