Covid 19 coronavirus: Empty schools and kindergartens as new Auckland lockdown begins

Many Auckland schools and kindergartens have been empty today as the city ends its first day back in level 3 Covid lockdown.

The Auckland Kindergarten Association said 109 of its 120 kindergartens had no children at all today and the other 11 had only one child each.

“In three of those, the child only stayed for an hour,” said the association’s general manager of education Bram Kukler.

“When parents realised there was only one child there, they went and picked them up.”

Both schools and early childhood centres reported that most parents kept their children at home across Auckland, although with variations reflecting closeness to the latest Covid cases in South Auckland and varying levels of anxiety among some cultural groups.

Auckland Primary Principals Association president Stephen Lethbridge said attendance at inner city primary schools ranged from no students to 14.

The city’s biggest secondary schools, which normally boast 2000 to 3000 students, counted students attending today in single digits: three at Mt Albert Grammar, one at Macleans College and none at Rangitoto College.

An early childhood company with seven centres across Auckland said it had 30 students at one centre, 14 at another and fewer than 10 at each of its other five centres.

Another, New Shoots, reported 27 children at its Pakuranga centre, 12 at Hobsonville, 11 at Whenuapai, 10 at Westgate, five at Hillcrest and two at Greenhithe.

“Most people are keeping their children home. Some essential workers are keeping their children at home just until they know what’s going on,” said New Shoots director Michelle Pratt.

“Most people have looked at it, and to be honest looked at the weather, and gone, let’s stay at home with the kids today.”

The biggest private childcare chain, BestStart, reported an average of 14 children at each of its Auckland centres, about one-sixth of the normal 84.

Tim Wong of Evolve, the country’s second-biggest private early childhood chain, said attendance was “slightly higher than the last level 3 in Auckland, other than South Auckland, which is down understandably”.

All kōhanga reo across Auckland were advised to close by their national body.

All schools contacted by the Herald said they were starting remote learning via online platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom. Macleans and Rangitoto started on regular timetables today; Mt Albert Grammar plans to start half-hour online classes replacing one-hour face-to-face classes from tomorrow.

Early childhood centres are more variable. Kukler said some kindergarten teachers have been in touch with their children, but others are waiting to see whether the current three-day lockdown will be extended.

“The teams are all set up to do some online things, but how much do we mobilise for three days?” he said.

“At the moment that is at centre discretion. If there is an indication of a longer lockdown, then we will do something association-wide and support them with some online content.”

Early Childhood Council (ECC) chief executive Peter Reynolds said many centres were worried about whether they would still get Ministry of Education funding if children stayed away, and some decided to keep charging parents even if their children didn’t attend.

“One service said their parents are asking, are we going to get fee relief? The service said no, and the parents said, in that case we’re bringing our kids in,” Reynolds said.

The ministry told centres that they “should apply the frequent absence rule for any permanently enrolled children who do not attend their scheduled hours”.

ECC president Dr Darius Singh said that rule allowed centres to still get funded for children who were absent for up to three weeks.

“The three-week rule is a good rule for us,” he said. ‘When we go past that, centres will start panicking about what is the situation for funding, but within that we should be alright.”

Pratt said her New Shoots centres charged parents fees a week in advance and would refund fees for all days when Auckland is in level 3 lockdown.

Kukler said there was some confusion caused by changes in the Auckland boundary, which follows the Auckland Council boundary in the north but has been extended south of the council boundary for the current lockdown to include Tuakau, Pōkeno and Mercer.

He said the Mangawhai kindergarten, which is just north of the Auckland boundary, was not affected by the Auckland lockdown last August but believed that it was included this time.

Counties Manukau Kindergarten Association chief executive Calmar Ulberg said the Tuakau kindergarten was outside the lockdown last time, which caused problems because some of its teachers lived inside the Auckland boundary and could not get to work. This time they are all inside the boundary.

Pōkeno Childcare owner Harsim Ghuman said the new boundary has been “a huge help” for her because many of her staff also live inside the Auckland Council border.

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