Schools reopen for years 11-13 – Expert Reaction

From Tuesday, senior students in Alert Level 3 areas will be able to return to high school campuses to finish assessments and sit exams.

Students will be required to wear masks on site and in school buses – staff will also have to wear masks, as well as showing a negative test before attending, and getting their first vaccine by 15 November.

The SMC asked experts about today’s announcement.

Dr Jin Russell, Developmental Paediatrician, and PhD Student, School of Population Health, University of Auckland, comments:

“The decision to reopen schools next week on Tuesday for Years 11, 12 and 13 is a balanced decision. Doing our best for children during the pandemic means reducing both the direct harms of the pandemic – that is, being infected with Covid-19, and the indirect harms. Overseas, we see that prolonged school closures are harmful for children and young people. Schools are essential services for children and young people, and support not only their learning, but also their mental health, well-being, relationships, and development. Year 11, 12, and 13 students are increasingly vaccinated, able to tolerate wearing face masks, and physically distance, while on school grounds, which means that the risks of transmission can be mitigated. With initial student numbers low, overcrowding is also prevented. Schools are also trusted community hubs that may be able to build bridges to families who have not yet been reached by the vaccine rollout, providing good information to encourage and support vaccination.

“Primary school students will need to wait longer for a decision to return to school, and this is a smart move if it means that time is put into optimising reopening plans for schools. A careful reopening of primary schools with robust plans for mitigation measures is preferable to a hasty reopening which leads to more cases and school outbreaks.

“We are getting closer to what could be considered a ‘gold standard’ plan for reopening schools. With vaccination mandates in place, and vaccinations levels rising in the 12-19 age group, it is important to focus on ventilation and filtration. Improving ventilation within schools is crucial given the Delta variant has airborne transmission, and microscopic virus-laden particles can accumulate within poorly ventilated classrooms where they are breathed in. The majority of New Zealand schools rely upon natural ventilation – throwing open windows and doors as much as possible to bring as much outdoor air in, as possible. Over the summer months this may be easier. Portable CO2 monitors, such as those included in school reopening plans overseas, can be useful for ventilation audits, that allow schools to identify hard-to-ventilate rooms at peak occupancy, and adjust occupancy accordingly.

“The use of wearing face masks can also be optimised. The use of face masks is recommended for children aged 5-11 years, and mandatory for secondary school students. We need to build a culture of wearing face masks within schools moving forwards, while being understanding of those children with developmental difficulties who may not be able to mask.

“Thinking ahead, we need to ensure that safe plans for schools continue to be refined and upgraded. This is critical because Delta is going to be with us for some time, the 2022 winter season will likely lead to case increases with more indoor activities, and there is always the future risk of new variants. The provision of portable ‘plug and play’ air purifiers with HEPA filters as recommended by the CDC could be considered for classrooms that are hard to ventilate, or for educational settings where there are children at higher risk of more serious Covid-19 illness. Victoria has purchased 51,000 of these portable air purifier units for classrooms. Any such provision should use an equity framework, ensuring higher provision for those schools within communities that are at higher risk of Covid-19 spread.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Dion O’Neale, Principal Investigator, Te Pūnaha Matatini; and Lecturer, Physics Department, University of Auckland, comments:

“The move to reopen schools for senior students at the start of next week represents a significant risk for increasing case numbers.

“In addition to new infections that will occur directly from interactions at schools, re-opening schools creates large numbers of indirect new connections between households from otherwise weakly connected parts of the community. Modelling suggests that most of the extra infections from schools reopening will actually show up in non-school contexts as a result of students subsequently infecting other people in their households or in other community interactions.

“Mandating mask wearing in schools and on transport when students return is a good start to try and limit transmissions. If we want to make sure that all students and staff are correctly wearing masks at school then it will be necessary to make sure that they have easy and affordable access to well fitted, high quality masks.

“Many of the other requirements that have been announced as part of schools reopening are things that we would expect to have been already occurring as part of basic hygiene (e.g., staying home when unwell, hand hygiene, and cough & sneeze etiquette) or have been found to have limited impact, especially in an indoor setting (e.g., keeping a one-metre distance or cleaning surfaces).

“Requiring classrooms to have good ventilation is a good goal, but seem highly aspirational in the short term, without time and resourcing for schools to purchase and install necessary filtration or ventilation systems.

“An opportunity to reduce transmission risk in schools (and in other contexts such as workplaces) that has not been included in these requirements is the use of regular rapid antigen tests (rapid lateral flow tests). While less accurate than a PCR test, these are much faster and could be used to identify within minutes when people are infectious, so that they know not to attend school. This is particularly important for students. Younger people and people who are vaccinated both have much higher chances of being asymptomatic, if they are infected. This makes it much trickier to identify cases and prevent spread in groups like senior students.

“Senior students are part of the age group who are the most recent to have access to vaccines. Consequently, the fraction of students in this age group who have received two doses in only around 60 per cent for Auckland and around 40 per cent for Waikato. This vaccination data also follows the familiar pattern of much lower vaccination rates for Māori (around 40 per cent in Auckland; 30 cent in Waikato) and Pacific (around 50 cent) students.

“The expectation that students or staff at higher risk of severe illness will simply not return to school presents a significant equity issue unless schools are able to offer both online and in-person teaching. This also extends to students or staff who may live with someone else at risk of severe illness, who they might be wanting not to infect. While reopening for students presents opportunities for some, it risks making things worse for more vulnerable students with underlying health conditions, who we know are over-represented in some communities.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I, along with others from Te Pūnaha Matatini, am funded by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to provide advice on the COVID response and from a Health Research Council grant to look at equity related to COVID in Aotearoa.”

Associate Professor Arindam Basu, College of Education, Health & Human Development, University of Canterbury, comments:

“There is a risk of further spread of infections once the schools reopen. It was encouraging to note that wearing of masks was made mandatory for students and staff, and negative tests and vaccination will be in place, with emphasis on outdoor classes.

“One other thing would be important in this context: that of improving ventilation in the classrooms. School classrooms traditionally do not have the best ventilation facilities, and COVID-19 is an airborne infection. Besides that, accurate record keeping about attendances and strict control of truancy would be key steps here to minimise spread to and from schools.

“For COVID-19, we know there are four related features that determine the extent of spread, all things considered. First, poor ventilation and crowding, leading to potential superspreading events as COVID-19 spreads in a manner where most infections result from few, and most people would not pass to the others. COVID-19 is airborne, so ventilation is the key. Surface deep cleaning may help but attention to ventilation is important.

“Second, masking is absolutely necessary to minimise spread from source. So, if a student or staff is asymptomatic in the days of high viral load, not wearing a mask can trigger superspreading events.

“Third, regardless, vaccination with two doses is necessary to minimise severe infections. Vaccination is super-important although it does not guarantee that infection will not occur. As a matter of fact, with high rates of vaccination, expect more breakthrough infections but equally, such infection will likely to be mild. Hence, vaccination with two doses should be mandatory.

“Finally, limiting the number of people sharing a space is important. A two-metre distance is possibly a minimum distance.

“These said, the balancing act of allowing students face-to-face learning while managing the public health risk is important and the step is commendable. The key things to watch will be maintenance of high vaccination rate in the general population, masking, record keeping, ventilation in schools, and control of truancy, from the perspective of school-based education and epidemiology.”

No conflict of interest

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office, and Senior Lecturer, Pathology & Molecular Medicine, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

“It was announced today that Year 11, 12 and 13 students in Alert Level 3 regions of Aotearoa New Zealand would be permitted to return to school for onsite learning on Tuesday, 26th October 2021 so that senior secondary school students could prepare for their end of year NCEA exams and complete assessments.

“Getting vaccinated remains critical given the current situation. Of those affected by the current Delta outbreak, 35.4% of COVID-19 cases were identified in children and youth aged 19 years and under.

“The vaccination target details being announced this Friday for Aotearoa New Zealand will need to include at least 90 – 95% full vaccinations for Māori and Pacific peoples, to help keep our vulnerable safe from COVID-19 – this also includes our children and young people. The 12–15-year-old age group is the most recent cohort to be added to the vaccination programme and will have had less time to get protected.

“Having the COVID-19 vaccine demonstrates our commitment to keeping others safe – including our most vulnerable, and this includes our younger children who still don’t yet have access to a vaccine that will keep them safe from COVID-19.

“It remains important that those who are unwell and require hospital or emergency care, still come forward to get the medical care they need.

“Get vaccinated, get tested, follow the alert level rules and importantly, reach out to others around you and help them do the same.”

No conflict of interest.