Secondary school students in Years 11-13 who live in alert level 3 areas will be able to return to the classroom on 26 October, Education and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has confirmed.

Hipkins and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield have held the government’s latest briefing on the response to the Covid-19 outbreak in Auckland and Waikato.

Watch the Covid-19 update here:

There were 60 new community cases today, down from yesterday’s record high.

Hipkins said the decisions on schools and early learning services in alert level 3 areas were finely-balanced ones.

“Exams are racing up for our senior secondary school students in particular and the stresses and strains that learning from home creates become more evident by the day.

“We want to get our young people back in the classroom as soon as we can but we also want to keep them and the wider community safe.”

He said students who can return to school will need to meet strict conditions before attending.

“Children, young people and staff at higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19 should stay at home unless fully vaccinated, face coverings are mandatory for staff and learners in years 9 to 13, and records must be kept for contact tracing purposes. Face coverings on school transport will also be mandatory.”

Staff and volunteers working on site in alert level 3 will need a negative test before attending, and staff and volunteers in all regions will need to receive their first vaccine by 15 November.

Hipkins said the government was not ruling out other students returning before Christmas and will consider health advice on Tuesday.

“For years 1 to 10 the picture is more complex. I’m not completely ruling out these students in level 3 regions being able to return before the end of the year but if they do, we’ll need to be satisfied there are sufficient processes in place to minimise any risk.

Hipkins also confirmed that NCEA and New Zealand Scholarship exams will proceed, including in areas where Alert Level 3 has been in place.

“The New Zealand Qualifications Authority, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health have been working together to ensure exams can be managed in a safe way, so students have the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned.”

Students whose learning has been disrupted by lockdowns and are unable to attend an exam will be eligible for an ‘Unexpected Event Grade’.

Northland dropped down to alert level 2 today, while Auckland and Waikato remain at alert level 3.

While the daily numbers dropped today, Hipkins has warned the daily Covid-19 numbers would increase over the coming weeks and may end up in the “high hundreds”.