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On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Education Minister Chris Hipkins

114 countries have closed their schools to try and suppress the spread of Covid-19.

New Zealand has not done this yet.

But is it just a matter of time?

Simon Shepherd spoke to Education Minister Chris Hipkins and asked him how seriously he's considering school closures.

CHRIS HIPKINS: Look, school closures are absolutely an option that exists in the toolkit. The decisions to close schools will be made based on medical advice. So, it’s the regional Medical Officers of Health who make that decision. We’ve already seen one example of that, Logan Park High School in Dunedin where there was a risk and an increased risk, so that school was closed so that contact tracing could take place and so that cleaning could be done and so that all the precautionary measures can be taken.

SIMON SHEPHERD: We’re talking about widespread closures, perhaps nationwide closures. Why not now?
Because we’re doing it based on risk-assessment, we’re doing it based on the advice of the health officials. So where they believe that there is increased risk for a school, then of course, they have the ability to close that school. But at the moment we don’t have community transmission in New Zealand. That is what we’re seeing in most countries where school closures are taking place. So we are not at that point in New Zealand.

Okay, so you raised that point of community transmission. If community transmission was confirmed today, what would happen?

The most likely thing is if we confirmed community transmission in an area, then the regional Medical Officers of Health can close all of the schools and early learning centres in that area. If it’s more widespread throughout the country, then obviously we have the option to close schools throughout the country. But it’s done based on, you know, actual risk.

Sure. So, you’ve put together a level of risk 1 to 5 to determine what reaction you should have to COVID-19 in schools. Level 5 says if there’s nationwide community transmission, what is nationwide transmission? Is it one school in Northland and one school in Invercargill? Or does it have to be a lot more? [this is the risk level for schools]

Look, ultimately I want to stress here that the decisions around school closures are made by medical professionals, by the people who are managing this from a health perspective, that’s the key criteria. So they make a decision based on what the risk to all of the people in that school. So that includes the teachers, that includes the other adults, it includes the students. And where they believe that in order to slow the spread, in order to control the risk, they need to close a school, they can. Where they need to close a group of schools, they can. Where they need to close all the schools, they can.

I mean, 114 countries have implemented nationwide closures around the world. It seems like we’re at the wrong end of this at the moment. We’re falling behind.

No, but in those countries they have widespread community transmission, which we don’t have in New Zealand at this point. So that hasn’t been established in New Zealand. What we know is that what we’re doing at the moment appears to be working. Now, of course, you know, things can change. And when they do change, we’ll move very quickly. But the focus in New Zealand at the moment is on contact tracing. That means that if someone has it, we contact, we find every person they’ve come into contact with. Those people then go into self-isolation so that we can contain it. And actually, one of the advantages of having young people in a school setting as opposed to out and about at shopping malls and so-on is contact tracing is actually easier in that environment.

Okay. Are you absolutely sure that there is no community transmission in schools as of this morning?

Look, there is no evidence of that at this point. You know, like I said, where that changes, we’re in a position to move quickly if we need to.

Okay. If schools are forced to close, either geographically or nationwide, what support are you going to give to the children of essential workers who need somewhere to go?

That, of course, is one of the other considerations that we have. We’re going to need to find solutions to those where they cannot go home or where their parents are unable to find an alternative for them. We will need to find alternatives for them, you know, even during school holidays, we have school holiday programmes and things like that. So we’re going need to make sure that we’ve got systems in place for those kids that we need to continue to offer something for. And we’re also going to need to look at how kids could keep learning at home if the closure is for a prolonged period of time. So the plan for all of those things is happening at the moment.

So, there are a couple of things there, school holidays — are you going to either bring them forward and are you going to extend them?

That remains an option on the table. Again, we’d do that based on health advice and on a risk-assessment.

Do you believe that parents are already deciding to lock down themselves and take their kids out of school? We’ve got reports that some schools are reporting a 50% drop in attendance. Is that a concern?

Look, ultimately my message to parents is at the moment the risk of transmission in schools is very low because we do not have widespread community transmission in New Zealand. So if that were to change then we would look at school closures. We’re not leaving schools open in the face of risk. The decision not to close schools is because we believe the risk to be low.

Yeah, but if you’ve got kids not turning up at school, maybe they’re not being supervised, we just don’t— you know, we don’t have that student cohort being looked after. Is that a greater risk in the community if people are pulling their kids out of school already?

I guess that depends what they’re doing with those kids. If they’re keeping them at home and they’re keeping them in self-isolation, then the risk is lower. If those kids are, you know, out and about, you know, free roaming in the community, then that actually does increase risk. And so we definitely don’t want that to be happening.

Will you be following up with the Ministry of Youth following up on those kids?

Look, as you can imagine, the system is working at capacity at the moment. We’re working very hard, we’re working very fast. Everybody’s attentions are focused on this and on containing the spread of COVID-19. Our attention is really focused on what’s essential.

Are parents taking proactive action? Are they reading the room before the Ministry? Is the Ministry behind what the parents are thinking?

No, actually, like I said, we do careful risk assessment. At the moment, without widespread community transmission, the risk of this virus being spread in schools is very low. If that risk were to change, then of course we would take more proactive action.
You talked about maybe having to have students learning online at home if we have school closures, maybe up to 70,000.

You’ve been surveying schools. What is the picture of schools being able to teach online?

It’s mixed. So most schools would have some online learning capability. Whether that’s enough to be able to sustain students being at home full-time for a prolonged period of time is one of the questions that we’ve got to work through, and what support we’re supplying to the schools who don’t have that capability. And we’ve got options. We’ve got Te Kura, for example, The Correspondence School, who can provide additional support. So we’re looking at how we can make sure we’re doing that. We’ve also then got the consideration of the actual physical capability for online learning at home. So not everybody has broadband at home, not everybody has digital devices at home. So we’ll need to take action in that space. We’re working with the telecommunications companies to make sure that there’s capacity there so that everybody can keep accessing broadband at home if there’s a massive spike in usage. So all of those things are happening now.

Sure, but are you asking telcos, for people that don’t have internet access at home or a device, where are they going to get the internet access and who’s going to give them a device?

So those are the things that we are working through at the moment. In some cases, schools will have a stock of digital devices that they normally keep at school that they may be able to issue for students to take home. We’re working with the telecommunications companies to make sure that broadband access at home is not a constraining factor. So that includes looking at options where people might not have it at the moment. But also there’s other considerations. At the moment, people have capped broadband data at home, and the telecommunications companies have been working with us to make sure that that’s not a constraint either.

So will the devices be free and will the caps on broadband be lifted?

I can’t give you those assurances at the moment. What I can say is that we’re working very hard to make sure that, if we get to that point where we need to push that button, we’ll have systems in place.

One of the reasons that you say you’re not closing schools now is that the risk isn’t there. And the prime minister’s talked about other countries that have handled Covid-19 well. One of them is Singapore and Taiwan. They haven’t closed the schools, but they’re taking temperatures of students as they go in all the time. Is that something that we should be doing?

The health advice that we’ve got is that the temperature checks wouldn’t be effective, and in fact in some cases could provide false reassurance. So, at the moment our real focus in New Zealand is on contact tracing. Every case that we’ve identified in New Zealand so far has come from someone who has come into the country from offshore or an immediate family member of one of those people. So that means that we’re in a very good position to continue contact tracing to continue stamping it out. When we get to community transmission – that’s where we don’t know where someone has picked up the virus from – then our response changes.

Do you think that we are going to reach a situation where we can’t contact-trace everybody in schools?

It’s possible that that may happen broadly, but it also may happen in geographical areas. So there may be an outbreak in a particular community, in which case we would close all of the schools and early childhood centres in that community; we’d put in place measures to stop it spreading elsewhere. Those are all scenarios that have been worked through. We’d only close schools up and down the country where that became the situation across the whole country.

So if you’ve got community transmission in a community, one geographical location, and you close the schools and early childhood centres in that area, how can you make sure that it’s not going to get out of that area? I mean, this is a small country and people are still travelling.

Yeah, and that’s one of the things that the prime minister will have a bit more to say on very soon.

What do you mean by that?

Well, there would be other measures taken in that community; closing schools would not be the only one. We would be looking at other things in that community in order to effectively try and shut down the spread of the virus within that community. And so the prime minister will have more to say on that. So what we’re doing in schools…

Sorry, just on that, you say the prime minister’s got more to say on that. Do you know when she’s going to have that to say?

I imagine that that will be very, very soon. What we’re doing in schools is very closely connected with what we’re doing across the rest of the Government’s response.

So we can expect an announcement today?

Look, what I’m saying is the prime minister will have more to say on the overall management of this through the wider community. That work has been done and is being done, and there’ll be more coming.

Does that also mean there’s geographical lockdown if you get community transmission, say, in one particular area, that all the tertiary institutions have to close as well as all the schools? Are you going to lock those down as well?

Ultimately, that’s a decision for the medical officers of health and in that area. And if they believe that that helps to stop the spread, then of course they have the ability to do that.

And if you have geographical lockdown of schools, what happens to the supervision of the children if the parents are still working?

Like I said, that is one of the things that we are putting things in place to ensure that those kids still have somewhere to go. It may be that we still keep schools operating during that time, but only for those who absolutely need to be there. So in the case of the UK, for example, schools have basically sent most kids home. But for those kids who still need to be there, those schools are still open.

Education Minister, thank you very much for your time this morning.

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