PM emphatic kids should return to school for overall 'wellbeing'

Source: 1News

Jacinda Ardern says it's important children return to school even though New Zealand may be on the cusp of a significant Omicron outbreak.

The Prime Minister addressed media on Thursday and was asked about her view on the return to school for students.

She was emphatic children needed to return for the sake of their wellbeing, with expert advice clear.

One of those experts is Dr Jin Russell, community and developmental paediatrician at the University of Auckland.

A paper written by Russell and other experts "strongly" advised the Government to continue with the opening of schools.

Ardern says it was acknowledged there might be localised closures because of teacher shortages or lockdowns.

"But the really important message from them was even in the face of Omicron, the balance of evidence continues to point to keeping children connected to their schools for their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing."

The paper, published on January 24, concluded "in a post-elimination context, prolonged school closures as a way of curbing community transmission are not an optimal, evidence-based, or sustainable strategy for children.

"As children and whānau become increasingly vaccinated, we need to protect them from the indirect harms of the pandemic which will be inequitably felt."

The paper also pointed out schools are not a major driver of transmission when other higher-risk places remain open.

President of the New Zealand Principals Federation, Dr Cherie Taylor-Patel, told 1News going back to school is vital for children and teens.

"After a year of disruption we’ve got students at all different stages and ages of their learning, so teachers need to get a sense of that."

Taylor-Patel says teachers need to reconnect with students by doing initial assessments around where kids are at with their learning as well as where they are at socially and emotionally.

"It’s incredibly difficult to do that when kids are not in a classroom. We would have to hope that everybody is focused on that when they come back to school."

Russell told 1News all the authors who contributed to the paper are parents "and also clinicians on the ground".

"So we understand the challenges that families have faced when schools have been closed and we have also heard of and witnessed some of the distress that children have displayed by not being able to go to school.

Russell's clinic at Starship is "busy" she said. She is hearing firsthand about how children miss being at school and how they have been displaying behavioural difficulties.

"When schools have been closed, I have seen the impacts on children with disabilities. Strong evidence shows when children are not able to attend school, they suffer learning loss and that loss is inequitable.

"Prolonged schools closures exacerbate existing educational inequalities so that Māori and Pacific children and children from disadvantaged homes are disproportionately impacted.

"From our point of view, the way forward in this pandemic is not to keep schools closed as a way of protecting children and their families but to vaccinate everyone who is eligible and to put in place prevention measures in schools."

She said the Ministry of Education has provided guidance to schools on preventative measures.

"Schools just have to implement that guidance as best they can. We have to think sustainably about the best way forward.

"From a population and from a policy point of view, school closures are not a sustainable strategy as a way of controlling community transmission.

"We have tools, we have vaccines. We don't want to cause harm to a generation of children by cutting them off from school and their friends.

"We need to think about how to protect children from the direct and indirect harms of the pandemic."