In an edict sent out to New Zealand principals, Secretary for Education Iona Holsted encouraged schools to “err on the side of caution”.

“For any staff member or student who may be at high risk of exposure because they have recently been to China or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with the virus, I encourage you to ask that the staff member or parent/caregiver of the student delay the start of their school year for 14 days and voluntarily stay away,” Holsted said.

The warning comes as hundreds of thousands of students return to school this week after the summer holidays. 

“As you will have seen in the media, the situation is rapidly evolving, internationally, concerning the coronavirus,” Holsted said.

“This is a new virus and its specific nature is currently unclear, however it appears that you can have the virus at an early stage and not be showing any symptoms.”

Holsted said “anyone who is unwell should not be at school or at their early learning service” and that “if a student still attends school while showing symptoms, the principal of a state school can preclude them if they believe on reasonable grounds they may have a communicable disease”, according to Section 19 Education Act.

Holsted told principals they can also “request that a staff member with an infectious disease or is suspected of having an infectious disease” to not attend school.

“If you haven’t already done so, you need to contact your parent communities to share this and any relevant information,” she said.

“Please keep an eye on our website and the Ministry of Health website: Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) guidance – Ministry of Health.”