Covid 19 coronavirus Delta outbreak: Schools prepare for voluntary student mask rules

By Bernard Orsman

Schools are gearing up for the Government's recommended mask use by students as they return to the classroom tomorrow outside Auckland and don't expect too many problems applying the voluntary rules.

Under alert level 2, school staff and students aged 12 and above are "strongly encouraged" to wear their own face mask at secondary schools but it is not mandatory.

"At alert level 2 there is low risk of community transmission and schools are open for all students," says a Covid update by the Ministry of Health.

Schools and teacher groups spoken to by the Herald are pretty comfortable with the mask rules and the public health advice, although one teacher leader expects higher levels of anxiety because of the more transmissable Delta variant.

Hamilton Boys' High School principal Susan Hassall. Photo / File

Susan Hassall, head of Hamilton Boys' High School, said the rules were a sensible compromise, saying the school would "warmly recommend" to the 2250 students they do wear face coverings but is not mandating it. Masks would be made available to students who did not have one.

"We are fortunate this year that the students have had experience with this(wearing masks) before. They know the efficacy of wearing a mask, they know the significance of it and they are pretty sensible about it.

"We are very focused on the ministry guidelines, which state it is a person's prerogative whether or not to wear a mask. It's not our place to have any value judgments on anybody," said Hassall.

The New Zealand Principals Federation said until there were high levels of vaccination across the population, schools will be guided by expert public health advice, which meant the wearing of masks and social distancing for students.

"That said, the logistics of carrying out the new level 2 requirements, with the additional recommendation for mask wearing, does add further layers of complexity for schools to manage.

"Schools vary in their capacity to provide masks for students and it is unlikely that many will. Mask provision will mostly be up to the students," a statement from the federation said.

The principals' body said it will not be possible for students to wear masks in all classes, such as music, drama and certain physical education activities.

Secondary Principals Association president Vaughan Couillautt said the mask wearing rules are pretty similar to coming back to level 2 last year.

"I'm expecting greater levels of anxiety, not about the mask use, but about whether they think it is safer at alert level 2. I'm expecting attendance rates lower than we hoped for," said Couillautt, who attributed the Delta factor to higher anxiety.

Duane Allen, the principal of Northland College in Kaikohe, said the school has a clear focus of trying to ensure as safe an environment as possible for students, their whanau and staff.

He did not think the rules around wearing face masks would present a big challenge, saying the school is staggering the return of students and taking other measures in level 2 like more cleaning, turning off water fountains and asking students to bring water bottles to school.

Drinking fountains will also be turned off at Te Aro Primary School in Wellington where school principal Sue Clement said teachers will strive to ensure social distancing between children. School assemblies, swimming lessons and the school production have been cancelled, she said.

At Burnside High School in Christchurch, the largest secondary school outside Auckland with a roll of 2500 students, 190 staff and 85 support staff, principal Phil Holstein said the senior leadership team will all be wearing masks.

He trusted the decision around the mask-wearing rules, but said the school could not insist or force students to wear a face covering.

"I'm expecting a good number will be wearing a mask," said Holstein.

Paul Goulter, the national secretary of the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) Te Riu Roa, said the mask-wearing rules were difficult for schools to get to grips with and asked schools and principals to work with staff and their communities on masks for students.

NZEI national secretary Paul Goulter. Photo / File

NZ School Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr said it would always follow Ministry of Health recommendations.

"Whilst we know the wearing of masks is a recommendation within the school we know they would do everything they can to keep students and staff safe.

"I would suspect the bulk of parents would be on board in terms of getting their children back to school," Kerr said.

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