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

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

The Ministry of Health has confirmed 23 new community cases of Covid-19. Video / NZ Herald

School principals are grappling with major changes to the rules for responding to Covid-19 just days before they welcome back students, and they want more clarity from officials — and fast.

The government has made changes in how schools deal with Covid, including increasing isolation time for confirmed cases, eliminating casual contact in addition to contact, and treating confirmed vaccinated and unvaccinated cases the same way.

It also introduced mandatory reinforcements for qualified teachers by February 4.

But the managers the Herald spoke to say they struggle to find the new rules or find the changes complicated and jumbled with outdated information.

Stephen Hargreaves, director of Macleans College, heard about the changes through a daily newsletter and zoom call, but struggled to find updated information anywhere online.

School principals, he said, have been “suspended to dry” with little clarity. It had 500 students already on campus and another 2,000 due to start next week.

“It’s frustrating because we heard word of mouth about these changes but everything on the site is outdated information.

“I had 500 students here this week, and if I call a parent tonight and they tell me their child has COVID, I need to know what to do right away.”

Thousands of elementary and high school students are returning to class starting next week.  Photos/Getty Images
Thousands of elementary and high school students are returning to class starting next week. Photos/Getty Images

“We need to know exactly what now constitutes close communication and have these messages ready to go to those affected right away.

We cannot wait for a call from the administrators or try to contact them.

Hargreaves, who is also president of the Auckland High School Principals’ Association, said the new information was needed to reach the right people quickly.

He just spent $6,000 on N95 masks for faculty because he heard a report over the radio that teachers need them now.

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

Mt Albert Grammar Principal Patrick Drum said the new changes were complex and needed some decoding.

School heads have been in meetings this week to follow up on changes and plan how the 3,000 schools can do better in the next few months.

“We’re starting to look at the information but it’s very complex and deals with elementary schools as well as secondary schools,” Drum said.

One of the new recommendations was for schools to separate the lanes into two lanes.

“Some of these ideas may work in smaller schools but in a school like ours with 3,000 people, it’s more difficult to implement.”

“We’re the second largest school in New Zealand and we’ve never been talked to about the practicalities of what they’re proposing, which is frustrating.”

“It appears that these decisions are being made in Wellington without thinking about the scale we are dealing with in Auckland.”

Drumm speaks from his own experience, as Mt Albert Grammar has dealt with several positive cases and resulting closures in the past year.

“We are very comfortable that we have dealt with this last year and we expect cases to arise and we know we will have large groups of people off-site for periods of time.

“We know we will have a staff shortage and that we will find new ways to keep the school open.”

Students can expect to encounter some different Covid rules when they return to school this year.  Photo/Michael Craig
Students can expect to encounter some different Covid rules when they return to school this year. Photo/Michael Craig

Both Hargreaves and Drumm said despite frustration with the publication of the updated rules, schools will do everything they can to keep students safe and at school where possible.

Drum said there will be a rotation of annual groups so that students spend one day a week at home to free the faculty.

They even considered inviting parents to supervise classes if the teacher at home was isolated and the school was understaffed.

“There are no sedatives and parents can supervise for 10 days as an unregistered teacher which can be a useful temporary solution,” he said.

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

If necessary, Drum said, the parent can supervise in class while the teacher teaches online from home.

“If a teacher is isolated but good enough to teach, they can take an online class from home with students who attend class in person.”

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

Drum said he does not anticipate any problem with the enhanced mandate for teachers.

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

Hargreaves said McClellans College will also implement listed learning and alternate days.

“We know that people will get sick from Omicron and that teachers and students will get sick but we want to continue teaching face to face where possible.

“It is better and more effective for students to get involved in person because of all the emotional and social benefits of being on campus.”

Besides academics, schools have also been prioritizing the welfare of students and the social aspect of the school.

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

“We will make sure that home deans and counselors address what students are concerned about.”

Keeping you safe at school

• Covid-19 vaccinations for all eligible staff and students

• Maintain physical distancing as much as possible

• Encourage good hygiene practices and use cough and sneeze etiquette

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

• Ensure that students or staff with symptoms of Covid-19 get tested for Covid-19 and stay home until they receive a negative result and have been asymptomatic for 24 hours

• Reduce mixing between students and staff

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

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