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Covid 19 omicron: Teacher sick days up 50 per cent on 2021, calls for more support

Dr Ashley Bloomfield and deputy director general Dr Andrew Old provide Covid-19 update. Video / Mark Mitchell The number of teacher...

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Dr Ashley Bloomfield and deputy director general Dr Andrew Old provide
Covid-19 update. Video / Mark Mitchell

The number of teacher sick days have increased by over 50 per cent compared to a year ago with “unprecedented” levels of illness across the sector.

It comes as the Government issues a strongly worded “recommendation” to schools to enforce mask-wearing for the first four weeks of Term 3, though stopping short of making masks compulsory, leaving the decisions to each school board.

The Principals Federation is also calling for the Government to increase relief teacher payments with many schools having already burned through their allotments, while other schools simply cannot find any healthy teachers to spend the funds on.

Figures, released to Green Party education spokesman Teanau Tuiono, show to the end of June 233,030 sick days had been claimed by teachers this year – the figure was 153,316 to the same point last year.

Tuiono also acquired data around the sheer numbers of students and teachers contracting coronavirus.

By mid-June, prior to the most recent spike, nearly a third of all teachers and a quarter of the school student population had caught Covid-19 – just under 20,000 teachers and 200,000 students.

In March alone nearly 120,000 students came down with the virus.

“It is unprecedented,” said Principals Federation president Dr Cherie Taylor-Patel, who has been a principal for more than 20 years.

“Even with the past three years we have never seen anything like this. The general winter overlaid with Covid-19 has made it really tricky across the country.”

Experts have been calling for mask mandates in schools with many teachers backing the idea.

This week the Ministry of Education again revised its advice on masks, saying it and the Ministry of Health now “strongly recommend” schools enforcing mask use from Years 4 up, with the final decision up to school boards.

Taylor-Patel said she felt the Government had the right balance with the wording by still leaving the final decisions up to schools and their communities.

“The evidence is strong that mask-wearing in schools leads to lower levels of illness in staff and students, but we don’t want schools to become the battlegrounds spending energy on enforcing masks that is better used on education.”

With the mounting sick leave and relief bills Taylor-Patel and other representative groups have been calling on the Government to fully cover the shortfalls.

“By the end of Term 1 some had used all of their sickness and relief payments and now after Term 2 more and more have done so as well. We are calling for the allocations to be reviewed and have this funding increased.”

Green Party education spokesman Teanau Tuiono. Photo / Supplied
Green Party education spokesman Teanau Tuiono. Photo / Supplied

Tuiono said with Term 3 starting on Monday the Government needed to go further and mandate masks indoors at schools.

“This data shows the Government needs to pick up its game and listen to teachers with an expert-led strategy.”

It comes as the Greens meet for their AGM today, which has been moved online due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The Greens are also calling for a public health campaign on mask use indoors and CO2 monitoring, ventilation and filtration; and more funding for ventilation and filtration.

Tuiono said there also needed to be greater monitoring of transmission in schools, with the data he received likely missing a huge proportion of the population.

Experts report Covid-19 affects all populations equally, yet the school transmission data shows the higher the decile the higher the number of cases, raising concerns about testing rates and resourcing in lower-income areas.

At decile 10, just under 38,000 students had contracted the virus yet at decile one it was just over 12,000.

Epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker said the sickness data confirmed what was known anecdotally and further supported calls to bring masks into schools.

The recent wording change from the ministry was “pretty strong”; the next step was to ask schools whether they were following the recommendation.

“Otherwise, we don’t know how the policy is being rolled out – it’s that classic thing of what gets measured, gets done,” he said.

“The school environment meets all the criteria for being a high transmission setting, [when we] think about the three Cs of confined, close contact and crowded.”

Masks were “phenomenally effective” at cutting transmission, he said – if everyone was wearing a mask it could reduce the risk of an infected person spreading the virus up to 75-fold. But that required people to wear the right type of mask, and to wear it properly.

“We need people going and observing behaviour across schools and different age groups to see what kind of masks are people using, how are they wearing them?

“Are they wearing them consistently? Because there’s no point in having policies unless we’re actually monitoring them.”

Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti said for Terms 1 and 2 the Government expanded funding to cover relief teacher costs due to Covid-19.

They were aware of a backlog of claims and the risk of continued issues in Terms 3 and 4 and were working through options.

“Providing surety to schools and kura that they can access additional financial support is considered important so that they can look after their staff and contain Covid-19 outbreaks,” Tinetti said.

“It also means they can explore solutions that best suit them, without trying to re-balance budgets or staff leave, and minimise the impact on curriculum delivery and day-to-day operations.”

Tinetti said Ministry of Health advice continued to be mandating masks in schools was not necessary but “strongly recommended” and she was confident in school boards being able to decide what was right for them.

The Government had already provided schools close to 30 million masks and another 10 million would be available over Terms 3 and 4.

Funding was also available for urgent ventilation property improvements and more CO2 monitoring devices and portable air cleaners would be distributed in Term 3.

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