Alert Level 3 schools could reopen next month – Expert Reaction

Auckland and Waikato schools could reopen on 15 November, according to the Government’s indicative start date signalled this afternoon.

Yesterday, high schools under Alert Level 3 re-opened for students in years 11-13 to finish assessments and sit exams. The Government also announced today that the parts of the Waikato region under Alert Level 3 will have some restrictions eased starting tonight.

The SMC asked experts about today’s announcements.

Dr Jin Russell, Developmental Paediatrician, Starship Children’s Hospital and PhD Candidate, School of Population Health, University of Auckland, comments:

“The news that primary schools may be able to reopen in a staged way from the 15th November will likely be met with a mixture of relief and anxiety by parents. A staged return, where students may attend on alternative days, can help reduce the risk of transmission, and is an approach that has been used overseas. Taking learning activities outdoors as much as possible is also a smart approach to lower the risk of any Covid-19 transmission.

“I have previously written about how Covid-19 infection impacts children at an individual and population level here; and recommended that we aim for a gold standard for preventing Covid-19 transmission within schools here. The most important part of preventing Covid-19 transmission within schools is to use a layered approach to mitigations.

“It is welcome news that NIWA is working with the Ministry of Education around monitoring ventilation in schools. It is not clear what the timeframe is around this important work nor what practical steps will occur if and when poorly ventilated classrooms are identified. Improving ventilation and air filtration is even more important as we plan ahead for the winter season of 2022 when classrooms will be more crowded.

“At a population level, the greatest acute health risks posed by reopening schools is not to students themselves (as I detail in the links above) but to unvaccinated older family members. Infected children may transmit the virus within their households. It is very important that anyone who is eligible to be vaccinated does so as soon as possible. Reopening schools also presents an opportunity to connect to families that have so far not been reached by the vaccine rollout.”

No conflict of interest.

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

With regards to potentially opening Auckland schools for younger students:

“It is good to see the return to school for younger students being foreshadowed, to allow for plans and discussion of ways to reduce the potential for further spread. Working with schools and resourcing them adequately will be key to this. It will also allow some time for any parents (or teachers) who have not yet been vaccinated to get that protection before children go back.

“Modelling suggests that re-opening all schools can represent a significant risk in terms of additional case numbers. This is because it creates new connections between parts of the interaction network for Auckland that would otherwise not be connected.

“Although re-opening schools might only see a 10—20 per cent increase in the number of infections that occur directly in schools, the additional connectivity that results means that the total increase in the number of infections, is likely to be much larger — up to a doubling in case numbers.

“Interactions that are already occurring such as those at work, home, or in the community become riskier when they are connected to other parts of the interaction network via students interacting at school.

“Measures such as having students attend school in shifts, so that a reduced number of students are interacting there at any one time, are one way to reduce the number of new links that would be created by schools reopening and to avoid adding links to some of the giant connected components we might see in the interaction network for Auckland.

“In addition to measures that aim to avoid creating interactions, it will also be important to use the time before further schools reopen to make sure that the interactions that do occur are as safe as they can be. This could mean things such as improving air quality in classrooms through ventilation or filtration, where possible. It will also need to include measures like establishing good masking practices for students going back to school.

“Until very recently there has been a reduced emphasis on mask wearing for younger children. It will now become important to start making sure that younger students have access to good quality, well fitted, and comfortable masks. A mask is only as good as its fit and many masks won’t fit well for children’s smaller faces, so it is worth finding those that do.”

With regards to the modification to alert level 3 for Waikato:     

“While case numbers in Waikato are still relatively low, the region has a lot more to lose than Auckland, with the potential for elimination of community transmission within the Waikato region still a possibility.  This will require a combination of effective contact tracing and strong adherence to Alert Level restrictions. People being quick to seek a test and to isolate if they have even the slightest suspicion that they might be infected or exposed will also be key to controlling cases.

“Given that it may yet take some time to isolate and contain the remaining cases of community transmission in Waikato, the modification of the Alert Level 3 settings there will allow for some increased social interactions in relatively safe environment. This looks like a balanced approach to allowing some extra freedoms without an overly large increase in the risk of additional transmission. As always, the reality will depend on the specifics of people’s behaviour — keeping interactions outside, at a distance, masked when possible, and with as few different people as possible over the course of a week or fortnight.”

Conflict of interest statement: I, along with others from Te Pūnaha Matatini, are 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.