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Omicron: Schools bracing for leap in cases

Featherston School pupils wearing masks in the classroom. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Schools across Wairarapa are preparing as best they can for more covid cases. Their preparations come as a Carterton school confirmed a positive case on Wednesday, Tom Taylor reports.

There are at least six Wairarapa schools who have confirmed positive covid cases within their communities and have closed temporarily while contact tracing took place.

Having witnessed the responses of the first schools in the region to encounter outbreaks, other principals said they felt as prepared as possible.

At Featherston School, principal Gina Smith said knowing that other schools had managed outbreaks gave her confidence that her school could handle one.

“We’re doing everything that we have to do,” Smith said.

None of Featherston’s three schools had yet been hit with cases, with most outbreaks in the region so far confined to Masterton.

Smith said that it would be important for the Featherston’s principals to communicate with each other should cases crop up.

“If we got a positive case at Featherston School, I would ring the other two schools and tell them. We’re all one community. It’s not hurting anyone’s privacy; it’s just letting them know that it’s starting.”

Smith was updating her school’s covid preparation documents on a weekly basis. She said although the fluidity of the situation could be an annoyance at times, schools needed to use common sense to get through.

She said that Featherston School was following Ministry of Education [MoE] guidelines on mask use. Most pupils Year 4 and up were wearing masks, while a handful had exemptions.

“Most of them are wearing them pretty well all of the time apart from when they’re out in the playground, where we let them take them off. It gives them a bit of a break.”

Smith said that early on in the year, some teachers had found that mask-wearing strained their voices, but most had become accustomed to it.

“I don’t have an issue with it. If it means that we can stay safe and keep us open for a longer length of time, then that’s just what we’ve got to do.”

There were no separate bubbles within the school, but single-cell classrooms kept students in different groups while indoors.

“The only time kids are mixing in bigger groups is at interval.”

One of the disappointing consequences of the red traffic light setting was that singing and kapa haka could not take place indoors.

Featherston School had attempted to continue these activities outdoors with children separated as much as possible, but eventually found it unfeasible.

“It’s a really big part of who we are, so it’s something that we’ve really missed. But, for safety, we’re not doing it. We will pick it up again, but it’s just one of those things.”

Meanwhile, 30 minutes east of Masterton, Whareama School had just three classrooms that were kept relatively separate.

However, principal Darren Kerr did not consider them ‘bubbles’, saying that pupils from all year levels had to catch the same buses into school each day anyhow.

“We’re a small school. With all the systems we put in place, if someone got covid out here it’s going to be pretty hard to stop the spread of it.”

Whareama had one classroom each for Years 1-2, Years 3-4, and Years 5-8. The Year 3-4 class implemented the rules of the lower age group, meaning pupils did not have to wear masks.

However, Kerr said mask use was encouraged at all levels of the school.

“The kids have just got on with it,” Kerr said.

Whareama’s “forest” classroom allowed pupils some respite, while in regular classrooms they could also take “mask breaks”, stepping outside whenever they needed fresh air.

Kerr said the cooler weather had helped the school to reduce its air-conditioning and rely more on ventilating classrooms with open doors and windows, as advised by MoE.

“Kids have been really good about it. We hear a few of them say, ‘It’s quite hot in my mask’, but they just go outside and have a break when they need to.”

All visitors to the school also needed to wear masks.

Kerr said covid had not put a stop to all of the school’s extra-curricular activities or education outside the classroom.

All going to plan, the entire senior class would travel to Wellington next month for an overnight stay at the zoo and a snorkelling trip.

He said the onus was on the providers of these activities to ensure their staff were vaccinated and traffic light guidelines were followed.

“If schools manage it well, a lot of these things can still be done. We get restricted more by the associations, and the rules of outside agencies rather than the school rules.”

Whareama had enough space to keep singing and kapa haka going in outdoor areas, with pupils distanced from one another.

In preparation for a sudden closure, the school had five-day learning programmes for pupils to complete at home.

Kerr had also prepared flow-charts for the school to follow in different circumstances, with breakdowns sent out to parents.

“At stage one, everything’s normal and everyone’s at school, right through to the school being closed and everyone’s learning from home. Then you have a mixture in between, where you might have some kids learning from home – what they call a hybrid model. And we’ve got indicators for parents and for us as to when we would go into each of these stages.”

Kerr said these documents took a huge amount of work.

“It’s taking up a fair bit of my day at the moment, but I’ve got a really supportive staff, and a fantastic teaching team. They take care of the student learning and achievement, and do a great job of it, and that allows me to get on and focus on the administrative side of it, and put these processes into place.”

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