What does it take for an entire school to pivot to online learning overnight? Does every school react the same? Re: spoke with a principal and student from two different schools in Auckland to find out.

Pacific Advance Secondary School (PASS) is a designated charter school of 150 students in Ōtāhuhu, South Auckland. 

St Cuthbert’s College is an all-girls private school of over 1,400 students in Epsom, Central Auckland. 

PASS is a decile 1 school, meaning it is among the 10 percent of schools with the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic communities. St Cuthbert’s College is a decile 10 school, the highest decile rating. 

At PASS, students attend school for free, while at St Cuthbert’s senior school students (Years 7-13) pay $24,960 for tuition each year. The school also offers several scholarships to cover tuition. 

They tell us what it took to shift to remote learning and how their students are coping during lockdown.  

“Lockdown definitely highlights inequity,” says Justine Mahon, principal of St Cuthbert’s. “Right across New Zealand, there will be households where women might be at risk of violence, or households where there's no access to internet or overcrowding, which has particular risks with a variant like this.”

“But while it does highlight inequity, I think it highlights universal humanity as well. We are all more closely connected now, which is a really powerful thing.”

Falefatu Enari, co-principal of PASS, says while lockdown pushes this inequity into the spotlight, in many ways this is a good thing. “The conversation is on the table,” he says. “It’s no longer just behind the scenes or this unspoken thing. Lockdown has brought these inequities into the light to be talked about openly. For us, that is a victory. That’s when things start to change.”

Re: When lockdown was announced on Wednesday, how did your school prepare? 

Justine Mahon, principal of St Cuthbert’s: We've been preparing for this, in essence, since the last time we were in lockdown. We've been reminding staff and students to take their laptop home with them every night, just in case things change. 

Looking at what has happened globally we knew there would be a leak through the border somehow. So it was just being in that readiness, and being very calm about it. 

Falefatu Enari, co-principal of PASS: Our biggest thing was making sure our families were equipped to be connected. On the mainstream news, lockdown means business as usual but it’s online. It’s beautiful shots of kids sitting at kitchen islands, each with their own device, but this is not the reality for our kids. The majority of them don’t have devices, and some don’t have internet either. 

So when the lockdown was announced we were asking questions like: Do they have the internet? Do they have a device to get online? All of that data was collected and then a small team came into school to organise and deliver what people needed. 

Last year during the first lockdown the Ministry of Education established a $87 million COVID-19 related distance learning package. This package aims to make remote learning possible for all whānau and children by giving households in need access to television broadcasting, access to online learning and teaching, as well as devices and connectivity.

Re: What is your biggest priority during lockdown?

Principal of St Cuthbert’s Justine Mahon at home during lockdown

Justine: Ensuring our community remains connected, that's a protective factor for everybody. Because right across the deciles, families will be under stress. 

So I continue to hold assemblies online, we make sure that the girls have their regular routines and tutor time where they can touch base with the tutor teachers. Last lockdown we also set up a little sister programme where the senior students check in on a junior student they are partnered up with, so we are doing this again this time. 

Falefatu Enari, co-principal of PASS

Falefatu: It’s connectivity. But we have to step back and consider the environment that these kids are learning in at home. For some families, having kids online could be one of the last priorities because there’s no food in the fridge or no power. So to get kids online, we have to think about how we can alleviate all of those pressures. 

So now we are getting power bills coming through and food requests are coming in. So far, 65 of our families have received food parcels. The first lot were from us emptying our fridge and pantry at school because we have been feeding these kids a hot breakfast and lunch for seven years now. The rest have been provided by Village Trust, which is an organisation run by our Chairperson Sir Michael Jones and his wife Lady Maliena.

Re: What is the biggest challenge for your students during lockdown?

Justine: I think one of the biggest challenges is that developmentally, young people need to mix with one another. And I think for teenagers to be shut away like this, it's very, very hard. And that's why their connection online is so important. 

Falefatu: It’s the lack of social interaction. And then just the confinement of where they are. The size and the space and the number of people that are now living together all of the time.

One day in reading group I asked the kids, “What is your favourite place in the world? That little place you like to go where you just feel so good?”

I walked past one kid’s book and he had written ‘the bathroom’. So I said “Be more specific, is it sitting on the toilet, where are you talking about?” And he tells me, “Oh, sometimes I like to lie in the bathtub.” And so then I realised, ah, there are 11 people in this boy’s family, plus extras living with them.

He’s a very creative boy, and so the bathtub is where he has space and quiet to dream and imagine. So when we think about online learning, we have to remember to look at it through this kind of lens.

Re: How have you found your students' work environment at home?

Justine: I think it's difficult for parents across the country to be quite honest. With so many of our families, both people are working full time. So if you've got two parents working from home, and you've got children learning online, whatever household you're in anywhere in New Zealand, it's really difficult.

We've also got parents who are essential workers, doctors going into hospitals, and so a lot of students are having to be hugely independent and look after younger ones.

Falefatu: There are things we can’t change. Some kids have to go and sit in a car to do their lesson because it’s the only quiet space. If you’ve got six kids online in the same house there is going to be that lag and noise, so there are those issues still.

We also have many who are going back to work now, so they’re telling us they won't be in class. And so we're coming up with a plan of how to balance that out. We don't obstruct this, because if they have a chance to get some money for their family they need to take it, and sometimes they're the most well person to work in their household. 

But the attendance of our online lessons is really high. We think they are a break from the reality they are living. 

Re: Are students and families at your school fearful right now?

Justine:  I don't think it's particularly in our college, but I think right across the country, yes. The biggest problem is the uncertainty, I think that's what's difficult. But people are showing resilience.

Falefatu: We know that Covid is our community, so there is a lot of fear. We have families where young ones have rheumatic fever, and most households are living with eldery, so people are feeling very vulnerable because they don’t know how they would respond to the virus.

One parent rang us up one night because their boy was wanting to go for a run, but he didn’t think that was wise because the virus spreads through the air. So some of the kids are sort of not really even allowed outside because of this fear. 

As a final word, we asked a student from each school whether they’re anxious or worried about anything during lockdown. 

Carmel Ah Chong, head girl of St Cuthbert’s college: Personally, no not really. But I am worried about how students feel learning online, it’s definitely challenging. I think a lot of students are worrying about how that will impact their exams which are coming up. 

Truce Elu, Year 13 student at PASS: I'm not feeling anxious or worried about anything right now, except when I think about the long term. The thing that is playing on my mind is how I am going to get the necessary credits for practical subjects if you are stuck in lockdown. I also think about how we can’t have that connection and openness with our peers. 

In Zoom classes we talk about how we are doing and how our households are doing, and we try and joke around as if we are in class. But it’s not the same. 

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