Schools across the Auckland region, from Wellsford to Pukekohe, have been ordered to stay shut until February 7 due to widespread flooding in the area.
UPDATE: On Feb 1, the Ministry of Education announced that schools would be able to open from midday as “water is draining more quickly than expected”. The announcement did not mean schools had to open on Wednesday, and some are choosing to remain closed until Feb 7 as per the original directive.
The announcement came at the last minute on Monday 30 Jan, or Auckland Anniversary day – a public holiday for the region. Schools were preparing to open their doors on Tuesday 31 January, but were instructed to remain shut on Monday afternoon to reduce traffic on Auckland’s waterlogged roads. The Ministry of Education noted the decision was to “minimise traffic movement on Auckland roads while vital infrastructure is urgently repaired.”
Heavy rains and strong winds were forecast until this morning, with red warnings in place for Auckland, Northland and the Coromandel Peninsula. There are fears that the additional downpour on already sodden ground could lead to further flooding and slips.
Another communication breakdown
Some from the education community have criticised poor communications from the government, which left school leaders scrambling to communicate with their communities the night before schools were scheduled to open. The Ministry has apologised to Principals and Tumaki, stating that an IT fault prevented email communications from being sent to prinicpals, and that the issue had since been fixed and the emails resent.
Some principals expressed shock and frustration over the announcement, with Diocesan School for Girls principal Heather McRae saying they were “incredulous”.
“We only learned about the order at 3:30 pm [Monday] via the media. We apologise to all girls and parents for this very late notification.”
Despite having 12 classrooms affected by the floods, Auckland Grammar School was among those intending to open on Tuesday.
“It is a directive that Auckland schools must close for instruction on campus,” principal Tim O’Connor said in an email to parents on Monday evening. “This is most unfortunate after 2 days of instruction and work done over the weekend to get the campus ready for teaching this week. However, you can rest assured we will reopen as soon as we are permitted to do so.”
Some schools had been impacted by floods and were planning to delay opening, but only by a few days. Remuera Primary School saw flooding up to one metre in some areas, as well as leaks in several buildings. However, Principal Stephen King said “We were looking forward to an uninterrupted year of teaching and learning. The teachers had worked so hard over the summer to get ready for this year and welcome kids back and do regular school.
“That’s the punch to the stomach that’s a bit hard to swallow.”
Other schools impacted by the floods had planned to continue business as usual. Principal Paul Coakley from St Mary’s School in Northcote said that despite several leaks, they had planned to open today as planned, moving classes into other rooms for the first few days.
Secretary for Education, Iona Holsted, said on Tuesday that the Ministry was “very aware” that the message was late, but noted “we are in an emergency and things do change.
“I certainly apologise for the lateness and lack of clarity around the message. I’m really sorry to have done that and I really want to thank the principals who prepared to open schools so well,” Holsted said.
She reiterated that the decision was about easing pressure on Auckland infrastructure to allow repair work.
“Aucklanders will know that when schools aren’t open, traffic flows are quite different,” noted Holsted. She added that the Ministry would be reviewing the directive every day, following emergency management advice from the National Emergen closecy Management Agency (NEMA).
The Ministry stated that schools could remain open for distance learning, as long as on-site staff remain minimal, noting that the bad weather forecast this week could lead to further damage and disruption.
Schools minimally impacted by floods
Around 20 schools were impacted by flooding. Ministry of Education head of property Sam Fowler said “The majority of schools and kura have indicated they are not affected or only have minor damage.” Schools dealing with more significant damage had been contacted by the Ministry’s property and emergency response coordinators to provide any support required, said Fowler.
Given this news, some parents, whānau and community leaders criticised the decision to shut all schools, believing each school should decide whether to open their doors after the long weekend. Due to the last-minute nature of the announcement, there have been reports of families unable to source childcare and missing work, which Employers and Manufacturers Association chief executive Brett O’Riley said was impacting businesses.
Safety is a priority
However, most principals have supported the decision to close schools. Leanne Otene, president of the New Zealand Principals Federation, said “the majority of [principals] are very supportive of this move.
“Our first priority is the safety of our tamariki and our staff… if parents are caught out at work, [forecasted downpour] will be a substantial inconvenience to them getting back to pick up their children, and schools will be left with having to support these families.”
Auckland Primary Principals’ Association president, and principal of Newmarket School, Wendy Kofoed said: “it’s been a good call.
“It will give people a chance to catch their breath, the infrastructure a chance to be repaired… that’s going to take some time. And also we have some of our staff affected with their own homes.”
As of 3:30 pm on Tuesday 31 Jan, an ongoing poll released by Stuff, which had 7 thousand votes, showed that 60% of the public was in favour of schools closing.
“Imagine young children being stranded at school because of further flooding or landslides and parents not being able to reach them. What’s more important: a few missed days of school or the safety of children?” said a member of the public.