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Principals expect less disruption but warn big effort needed on attendance

The pandemic period is over, but the tail of its consequences on learning will be long, principals say. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Flooding in Auckland has dashed hopes of a trouble-free start to the school year but principals are confident their biggest problem of the past three years, Covid-19, will cause a lot less disruption in 2023.

They told RNZ they were expecting fewer class cancellations and school closures due to the virus, but warned they would still see the academic and emotional effects of the past three years of the pandemic on their students.

Ōtāhuhu College principal Neil Watson said making allowances and delays for Covid-19 had harmed students' learning so this year his school would not be doing that.

"Covid's in the community, it's with us and we've got to move on. We've got to get on with providing the best possible education we can for our students and to a degree that means ignoring Covid-19 and treating it like any other illness," he said.

Watson said students and teachers would be expected to stay home if they had the virus, but mask-wearing would be left to individual choice.

Secondary Principals Assocation president and Papaptoetoe High School principal Vaughan Couillault said he expected a lot of schools would take a similar approach.

"Schools like mine, we're doing the powhiri, we're planning for Polyfest, we've got camps and things planned and I can't see us rescheduling any of those unless there's some sort of legal change that means we have to so it's going to be pretty much back to what life was like before Covid, I think," he said.

Canterbury Primary Principals Association president Sandy Hastings said schools were hoping they could return somewhat to normal this year.

But she said for some children it would not be that simple because the pandemic had added to stress caused by the Christchurch earthquake and the mosque massacre.

"Families have responded to various events in different ways and for many families it's just been layers of trauma and stress and anxiety and we're absolutely seeing increases in anxiety in our kids and that is evidenced by poor attendance or children who are struggling in the gate of the school or to manage a whole day at school,' she said.

Attendance was especially bad throughout the country last year and many principals blamed high rates of illness and a looser attitude to attendance that developed during previous year's pandemic lockdowns.

Principals Federation president Leanne Otene said schools would be making extra effort over the next few weeks to ensure children got to class each day.

"We need to continue to talk about the fact that school is where our kids need to be," she said.

"They're not going to learn if they're not at school and this takes a whole community, it needs not only our parents to be on board and our tamariki but also grandparents, community members everyone saying 'look, get your kids to school', it's so important."

The Education Ministry expects more than 822,000 children will attend state and integrated schools this year, slightly more than last year.

Schools in regions other than Auckland can reopen for the first term any time this week through to Tuesday next week, while those in Auckland must wait until Tuesday.