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By John Gerritsen, RNZ News education correspondent

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has warned that nearly every New Zealand school and early childhood centre will have contact with covid-19 in the next few weeks.

He told students at Mana College in Porirua today that one in five schools were already managing cases among students or staff but they were well prepared.

“We’re now up to one in five schools [which] have covid-19 cases in them and that’s going to just continue to increase from here,” he said.

“We expect in the next few weeks that just about every school, every early childhood service potentially is going to end up coming into contact with covid-19 as it spreads more rapidly throughout the community. That is now going to happen,” he said.

His comments came as the Ministry of Health reported an almost doubling of new community cases to 12,011, with five further deaths — the highest number in a single day taking the total to 61.

Yesterday’s number was 6137 cases.

In a statement, the Ministry of Health said 8223 of the positive results came from Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs), while 3807 were PCR tests.

There are currently 237 people in hospital with the coronavirus, including three in intensive care.

92% of students vaccinated
Hipkins said 92 percent of secondary students were fully vaccinated, the government had 42 million facemasks on order or in the country for schools, and it was expecting 5000 air purifiers for rooms with poor ventilation.

Five covid deaths today - the highest death toll in one day since the pandemic began.
Five covid deaths today – the highest death toll in one day since the pandemic began. Image: RNZ screenshot APR

He also said schools might get easier access to rapid antigen tests after two large orders arrived in the next two weeks.

Currently the tests were a last resort for teachers who were isolating and whose schools could not find enough teachers to safely supervise children who could not be at home, such as the children of essential workers.

“In another week or two we will have a greater supply of rapid antigen tests in the country and at that point we may be able to say actually we can be a bit more generous than that and we can provide tests in a few more circumstances than that including for what we call surveillance which is just to give you reassurance that it’s not out there,” Hipkins said.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins
Education Minister Chris Hipkins … Image: Angus Dreaver/RNZ

Auckland Secondary Principals Association president Steve Hargreaves said that could make a big difference as the pandemic bites.

“That’ll help keep schools open.

“Schools are having to roster year levels home and children are having to learn remotely because so many staff are tied up as close contacts, family members have test positive but they’re still well, they’ve been able to isolate successfully at home and if we can keep those teachers in schools through the use of rapid antigen tests, that’ll be good for our children.”

After-school sport
Hipkins also promised to clarify the rules around unvaccinated children’s participation in after-school sport and cultural activities.

The Education Ministry’s website said there were no limits on curriculum-related activities like PE classes, but extra-curricular events like team training at schools must be limited to 25 people if any were unvaccinated and 100 if all were vaccinated.

Hipkins said that was not the government’s intention.

“Some schools are interpreting something like a kapa haka rehearsal after school hours or sports after school hours as being included in the guidance.

“We’d never intended for that to be the case so we’re clarifying that so to make it clear that if you’re participating in a school-organised activity, that includes sports, kapa haka, those other cultural events, the vaccine requirement will not apply,” he said.

The minister’s office and the ministry were unable to confirm details and Hargreaves said that was a shame, because he had unvaccinated students ready to play sport tomorrow.

“It’s really sad because we don’t want to exclude any children from these great extra-curricular opportunities but we’ve been following the guidelines around events, gatherings and those size limits and of course College Sport Auckland has its rule around needing to be vaccinated to comply with those rules and that’s blocked a few kids from playing and the sooner we can get this tidied up the better,” he said.

More detail needed
School Sport New Zealand chief executive Mike Summerell said he wanted to see more detail but allowing more unvaccinated children to play sport would be good.

“We welcome the news. It’s been a divisive and difficult time for sport and for schools in terms of inter-school activity but the announcement this morning means more kids are going to have access to sport where over the last few months they haven’t so that’s a real positive,” he said.

He said the change would not be enough to return big regional sports tournaments to the calendar because they involved more than 100 people.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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