Plans to reopen schools on a “voluntary” basis at Level 3 created an uproar in the teaching community. After meetings with officials, educators say some of their fears have been addressed, but there is still more to be done.

After Jacinda Ardern revealed the Government’s plans for life at Level 3 on the coronavirus alert scale, one profession was particularly fierce in their condemnation – the education sector.

Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O’Connor claimed the proposal to reopen schools – but only on a voluntary basis – would turn teachers into a baby-sitting service, while another principal described the decision as “a shambles”.

The pushback forced some damage control, sector heads meeting with Education Secretary Iona Holsted and other officials to discuss their concerns and the path ahead.

The talks seem to have been fruitful, with education representatives saying their concerns about a lack of engagement have been eased – but there are still some problems to be dealt with.

New Zealand Principals’ Federation president Perry Rush says his main concern as the news broke was not simply schools reopening, but a different standard being applied to teachers than the rest of the public, and a suite of new measures dropping on their laps as they were already on the cusp of a dramatic change to schooling in Term 2.

“It’s really important to understand the concerns expressed by principals and teachers at this time are not … because we’re trying to avoid the challenge of sharing responsibility, but rather that this is about expressing concerns about the safety of young people, about the safety of children in our care and the teachers that work with them.”

“The word ’need’ clearly points to a situation not of some voluntary attendance, but if you need to send your children to school – there is a real distinction there that needs to be made to the wider community.”

James Morris, chairman of the PPTA’s Secondary Principals’ Council, agrees schools have an important role to play in reviving both the economy and the country, but says teachers and principals need greater clarity about how their lives at Level 3 will look, particularly for vulnerable students and staff.

As NZEI president Liam Rutherford notes, the overarching concern of many teachers is that any decision to reopen schools “is being led by public health information, not by the need to get the economy up and running”.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has spoken about the idea of bubbles operating within schools, helping to shield against the risks of community transmission.

Rush supports the idea, arguing two-metre physical distancing within a school context is “next to impossible” given the way they operate.

But Morris says that will require careful planning: should students be grouped together by year level, or by the geographical areas in which they reside?

As principal of Darfield High School (a rural community), about 80 percent of his students travel by bus, raising questions about whether those school transport services will be fully operational, as well as if those who use the buses need to be grouped together in their own bubble.

Another concern is the use of the term “voluntary” to describe school attendance; after discussions with Holsted, Rush says education leaders received clarification that the more appropriate term is that schools are open to those who “need” them.

“The word ’need’ clearly points to a situation not of some voluntary attendance, but if you need to send your children to school – there is a real distinction there that needs to be made to the wider community.”

Just how many families will need to send their children to school is unclear. In the brief 48 hours spent at Level 3 before lockdown, Rush says there were very low numbers of students on site – but that was when attendance was restricted to the children of essential workers only.

Secondary Principals’ Council chairman James Morris says a major problem so far with distance learning has been students simply not turning up to virtual classes. Photo: Supplied.

As a result, Morris says schools will need some flexibility in how many staff they have on site, along with where their attention is focused.

Dividing time between students in the classroom and those learning remotely may be easier said than done, and he raises the idea of scheduled “supervision time” for those on-site as separate to distance learning.

As for the online lessons themselves, Morris says one of the main problems so far has been students who are simply not turning up to virtual classes, despite having the digital devices and internet connections they need.

Schools are wary about pressing too hard at a time when wellbeing is a concern, but he says there are risks about educational losses, particularly for those who may have challenges with literacy and numeracy.

“We’re trying to keep in contact where we can in encouraging [families], but the longer the lockdown goes on, the bigger those gaps are.”

Then there is the welfare of teachers themselves: Rush says those classed as vulnerable will need to work from home, while there will be some near-term challenges in terms of the mental wellbeing of both staff and students – as there was after the Christchurch earthquakes.

Robertson sought to smooth things over on Friday, providing an assurance that schools would not open for at least a week after any move down from Level 4.

“This is a situation where I believe we can make schools into a place that will be very safe for students and teachers … we’ve just got to use the time we’ve got over the next two weeks,” he said, expressing confidence that parents would make the right decisions for their children when it came to any return.

Rutherford says those answers will need to be in place before teachers start preparing their classrooms – but he has confidence that educators will be part of the Government’s planning moving forward.

Innovation ‘flourishes’

But while there is plenty of short-term pain, there is the potential for some long-term gains.

Once we are out the other side of the pandemic – whenever that may be – educators expect the new teaching methods forced upon schools by Covid-19 to linger in some form.

Rush praises the “extraordinary” collaboration already taking place between teachers as they grow accustomed to new technological tools and education practices.

“You are forced into a space of needing to think differently about how teaching and learning can be supported. It’s a good time, a fertile time for ideas to flourish and innovation to grow.”

Morris cautions that “humans being what they are, they return very quickly to old habits”, but agrees that the huge amounts of professional development taking place over a short time frame could lead to new approaches taking root.

Then there are more practical issues, such as the educators’ meetings and professional development courses that teachers have traditionally travelled around the country to attend.

“The meetings can be just as effective and professional development can be just as effective online, so I wonder, particularly in light of environmental factors, rather than having people flying around the place for professional development or for meetings or driving long distances, that will become more of an acceptance that you can join a meeting electronically as well as being there in person and both are just as valid,” Morris says.

Beyond digital gains, there may be some more fundamental benefits to teachers, students and their families sharing what has been a highly unusual experience.

“I’m relaxed about new technologies, but strengthening the relationship between a teacher and a child and their whānau, that’s where we’re going to see the best gains.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

Leave a comment