The return to Level 3 has led to growing concerns that vulnerable students will fall further behind, despite targeted funding and resources. Laura Walters reports on the impacts of the latest lockdown.

As New Zealand faces the possibility of bouncing in and out of lockdown over coming months, there are fears existing inequities will be further exacerbated.

Meanwhile, there continues to be disagreement over whether schools should open to children of non-essential workers, as some Auckland schools prepare to open to senior students completing NCEA-related work.

While many believe the return to lockdown in Auckland, and heightened restrictions through the rest of the country, were the right thing to do for the health of the public, education sector heads say the change in alert levels has been unsettling for students and staff.

On top of the anxiety, the logistical challenge of moving to distance learning with little warning was significant for Auckland’s schools.

Principals and teachers knew what they needed to do to move back into a mostly virtual learning environment, and schools said they were well-prepared to teach quarter of a million students from a distance.

But inequity is front-of-mind as attendance rates continue to drop, some students struggle to access devices and financial hardship and trauma take their toll.

The issue of teacher and student wellbeing has been raised since the country first went into lockdown in March, and as New Zealand faces the possibility of further moves in and out of lockdown, the sector is concerned for some students.

Under Level 3, students are encouraged to learn from home. Schools can safely open but have limited capacity, reserved for children of essential workers and those who cannot stay at home. And, earlier this week the Government made a change to allow some year 12 and 13 students to attend school in Auckland.

The directive on school attendance has been clearer this time around, after pushback over the Government’s previous decision to allow schools to open under level 3 in April. But that doesn’t mean all students are engaging with school, and in the Covid environment, schools are finding it hard to get some learners to engage.

The Education Review Office has been surveying schools and early learning centres to find out more about the impacts of Covid-19. 

In its latest interviews, ERO found a third of schools identified challenges in the transition between distance and onsite learning.

These issues included high rates of non-attendance and difficulty contacting some whānau when schools reopened.

Schools also said some students had been affected by trauma, there were behavioural problems – some resulting in suspensions – and ongoing issues with accessing devices and connectivity.

Lower decile schools reported more challenges in transitioning students back to school than higher decile schools. 

For Māori learners in English medium schools, specific challenges included less access to devices, concerns regarding access to tikanga Māori elements of the curriculum, and some whānau Māori were slower to return their children to school at the lower alert levels, due to anxiety around health in the context of having extended family living together.

Pacific learners and families faced similar issues.

“There is a really vulnerable group who have been very difficult to track down.”

On top of this, some families faced food insecurity and hardship; whānau stress and instability impacted on students’ wellbeing and behaviour; and some whānau were forced to move due to loss of employment or high housing costs.

ERO said specific plans around attendance and communicating with families would be needed as the country transitioned through alert levels.

Specifically, there was a need to track where students were and who was not enrolled, as the potential for increased transience risked some students “falling through the gaps”.

Schools and the ministry also needed to monitor the impact on learning and achievement, and support prioritised learning. 

“The effect is likely to be more significant for those groups of students for whom engagement during lockdown was more of a challenge: Māori, Pacific, students with additional learning needs, and students in low decile schools.”

New Zealand Principals’ Federation president Perry Rush said attendance had been an issue before Covid hit, but had been exacerbated by the lockdowns.

There was a reasonable collection of pupils who hadn’t been back to school since the start of the first lockdown.

“There is a really vulnerable group who have been very difficult to track down.”

These students often had at least one parent who had lost employment due to Covid-19. Many of them had been forced to move, and had not re-engaged in school.

Virtual attendance and engagement issues were made worse by unequal access to devices and resources. 

Again, this is something that had been an issue before Covid-19, but had been further exacerbated by multiple lockdowns.

In its latest bulletin, the Ministry of Education said while there was a limited number of devices in New Zealand, the Government had agreed to pay for them. 

This would mean there would be sufficient devices for students in year 9 and above, starting with Auckland. Low-decile schools, where students were less likely to be connected were being prioritised.

Hard copy resource packs were also being made available to students who needed them, and education television channels were playing a bigger part in learning.

In addition, the Government has put in place a range of urgent funding measures to help schools respond to Covid-19.

This included the $50 million urgent response fund, where schools could put in bids for funding for things like truancy officers or attendance support, or extra learning support, or special programmes.

The Government had also funded student counsellors in high schools.

And $16,632 had been made available to each remote school with one or two teachers, so they could afford cover for release time to address administration needs and support the school community.

“Everyone is sitting on my shoulders so I can’t afford to fall over or everyone falls over.”

Meanwhile, three quarters of schools reported one or more challenges relating to exhaustion and sickness, teacher stress about workload, teacher anxiety about health, or principals’ stress.

“Principals took on a lot of responsibility for student learning and wellbeing, as well as staff wellbeing, and in many cases, whānau and community wellbeing,” the ERO report said.

While some principals said they had good support networks, the level of responsibility and stress was significant. 

As one principal told the office: ‘Everyone is sitting on my shoulders so I can’t afford to fall over or everyone falls over.’

Rush said functioning in a school which had to turn on a dime many times, and at pace, was a mental challenge.

“Principals have played such a critical role in marshalling their communities, their teachers, being strong, showing the way, being brave. And all of that takes a massive toll as well,” he said.

“It’s been a tough time. But they’re hanging in there, and they know they need to of course, because they are so critical.”

Given the wellbeing implications of the virus, 70 percent of schools told ERO they had explicitly prioritised wellbeing over academic learning during lockdown. 

But anxiety over poor achievement outcomes had added further pressure to many students.

About a third of high schools reported senior students were anxious around NCEA achievement requirements. 

“Schools have developed great capacity and have busted out of that straight jacket-thinking that learning can only happen on a physical site. And yet here in this conversation now, we see the dissonance that is occurring in schooling at this point, around this very issue.”

PPTA Secondary Principals’ Council chairman James Morris said in addition to the challenges and anxiety felt by all Auckland students, seniors had the extra pressure of moving to distance learning while they were focused on mock exams and other learning for the NCEA externals later in the year. 

The Government’s decision allowing year 12 and 13 students to attend school in Auckland, despite the level 3 restrictions, was to address these issues.

This was largely geared towards students who had practical aspects to their classes, or couldn’t complete their work at home. It gave them the option to go to school, while staying in bubble groups and practising social distancing.

However, sector heads raised similar issues as last time when there was disagreement over whether schools should open under level 3, with the biggest concern being that this move appears to put grades above health.

They say existing dissonance between schools on whether it’s better to have learners onsite or learning remotely will need to be addressed as the country considers the mid-term reality of shifting between Covid-19 alert levels.

Morris said the changes to allow some students to attend school had been greeted with consternation by many due to the short notice, and the potential for further inequity and implementation issues.

The Principals’ Federation’s Rush said the decision to make these exemptions, and the difference in reactions from schools showed there was still a disconnect between developing remote learning capabilities, and the idea that good learning could only happen on a physical site.

“Schools have developed great capacity and have busted out of that straight jacket-thinking that learning can only happen on a physical site,” Rush said.

“And yet here in this conversation now, we see the dissonance that is occurring in schooling at this point, around this very issue.”

He said schools were still in the “engine room” of becoming adept and comfortable at schooling in different settings.

This latest rise in cases showed what coming months may have in store, and made the case for schools, professional bodies, and the ministry to create plans and processes to keep students safe, keep them learning, and make sure students didn’t fall through the gaps.

“If this crisis continues, and we jump in and out of the levels over the next six months or year, I certainly think we’re going to be needing to confront that question [of how to transition in and out of classrooms] in a much more upfront way, and I suspect we’ll need to continue to grow as a sector at developing capability in remote settings,” Rush said.

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