Inequities run deep: supporting our school communities

Recently, AKO spoke with two school principals about their efforts to bridge the digital divide in the lockdown. We caught up with them again to find out how their schools are managing the transition to Level 3 and beyond. They reminded us that behind the digital divide is a greater inequity.

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When the Level 4 lockdown ended Sose Annandale returned to her Porirua school and was immediately struck by the stillness and the silence.

“The whole neighbourhood was eerily empty,” says the principal of Russell School. “It still is.”

There are no kids playing on the street and no locals visiting the local shops. It’s like a scene from the apocalyptic Kiwi movie The Quiet Earth.

It’s like a scene from the apocalyptic Kiwi movie The Quiet Earth.

“We have no students at school,” says Annandale. “When we moved to Level 3 we expected some, but in the end only one student’s family was interested in sending them and they soon decided that being the only kid at school wasn’t the best option.”

The experience of Russell School is one being found across the country. Families have heard the advice from Government and are keeping their children at home during Level 3.

At Rowandale School in Manurewa, only 15 of 600 students returned on the first week of opening.

“We were pleasantly surprised,” says principal Karl Vasau. “But in talking to families we have heard that after weeks of lockdown, they better understand Covid-19 and the need for isolation. We really applaud their decision, which we know is a hard one in communities like ours.”

Vasau and Annandale’s schools are embedded in two of New Zealand’s poorest communities. Covid-related job lay-offs and reduced incomes have hit families particularly hard.

Vasau points to news reports of WINZ and other agencies scrambling to meet increased demand for assistance.

“Those are our people,” he says. “They’re struggling.”

There’s a hint of exasperation in the voice of the normally mild-mannered Vasau.

 “It’s hard to remain positive sometimes. I hear that we have to get on the boat together to meet this crisis, but sometimes it feels like the boat is the Titanic, where the price of your ticket will determine whether you survive.”

While the staff at Rowandale and Russell Schools are rolling out learning packs, they’re also providing food to families.

“Over the last three days we have given out 350 learning packs and made up food parcels as well.”

“Over the last three days we have given out 350 learning packs and made up food parcels as well,” says Vasau. “All the breakfast and lunch programme food – the Weetbix, the baked beans, the fruit pottles – they’re all packed up and ready to be given to families. It’s not a lot, but it will still put smiles on a few faces, if only for a day or two.”

Annandale says that as she and her teachers have visited families, they’ve also delivered food. On some of the visits they have invited parents to send their children to school.

“We know there are kids that probably need to come to school, so we are doing personal invites,” she says. “We have families living in some really precarious situations and we know they’ll be doing this lockdown really hard. We worry about their mental and spiritual well-being, so we are letting them know that school is a space that’s safe, organised, sanitised and ready to go.”   

Annandale describes visiting a family where children are living in a tent on the back lawn. There is another crammed into a motel unit.

Annandale describes visiting a family where children are living in a tent on the back lawn. There is another crammed into a motel unit.

“I visited that family today, and they were so excited to see me. They came bouncing down the driveway and I had to quickly remind the children that we couldn’t hug. They were so happy to get their learning pack.”

Annadale and her staff are concerned that they have had no contact with some families since the nation moved into lockdown. Visiting homes is the most reliable and productive way of engaging, but that takes time and doesn’t always get a result.

Meanwhile, Rowandale teachers are facing the same concern. The fact that some families haven’t interacted with school for several weeks could be a signal that something is awry, but there is only so much school can do.

From their contacts with families, Rowandale staff know that many families are feeling the emotional strain of life under lockdown. They expect that students will soon start to return to school in greater numbers. There are new bubbles ready to accommodate them.

“People are over their home bubbles,” says Vasau. “They’re often living with extended families in cramped conditions. They don’t have the resources or the choices that some communities have. Even taking a break and going for a walk at the local beach is not available to them.”

Russell School. Photo by Mark Coote.

Despite the small number of students physically at school, teachers at Rowandale and Russell Schools have continued to teach remotely. Students are using the learning packs they have been provided, and where there’s the capability, teaching is happening online.

“We’ve given out pretty much everything we have. All the pencils, all the rubbers, gluesticks and books have gone into the learning packs.”

“We’ve given out pretty much everything we have,” says Vasau.  “All the pencils, all the rubbers, gluesticks and books have gone into the learning packs. Now we’re about to distribute the school’s chromebooks to our Year 5 and 6 students.”

Russell School is also delivering Chromebooks to senior students, though a number of families don’t have an internet connection.

“The only access will be through hot-spotting to mobile phones and using data,” says Annandale. That addition to household costs is an issue that the school is trying to mitigate.

While listening to these school principals talk about the challenges they and their communities face, it’s striking how positive they remain.

Vasau expresses admiration for the way his community has dealt with the difficulties. He is grateful to families who have kept children home, so the school could roll out the new learning bubbles gradually. He comments, too, on the resilience and positivity of teaching staff.

“They still do their weekly reflections and although this has all been new territory, nothing has changed. They’re still positive, thoughtful and all about the kids.”

Annandale says that the Covid-19 crisis has presented educators with opportunities to re-evaluate how they do things and build on their successes.

She points to the new ways schools like Russell have reached out to families, forming deeper, more holistic relationships.

She and her teachers have been excited by the way students have engaged with the learning while at home.   

“Teachers have set the tasks, but left to themselves or with family input, students have interpreted the work in many different ways. The creativity has been wonderful. I think it shows that when there is less control and direction from teachers, kids will often do fantastic things.”

“The creativity has been wonderful. I think it shows that when there is less control and direction from teachers, kids will often do fantastic things.”

She says that teachers have embraced online teaching and believes that they will continue to build it into their programmes once students return to classroom.

“Sure, things have been difficult, but we need to take the positives,” says Annandale. “There’s so much that individual schools have learned, that can be shared in our Kāhui Ako. Together, we’ll also have to consider some problems, including equity issues.” 

In the meantime, both principals and staff are grappling with how to safely accommodate a growing number of students as the country moves from Level 3 to Level 2. They have discussed how to keep spacing in classrooms and what P.E. gear can be safely used. They are hoping that guidelines from the Ministry will appear sooner rather than later.

“We need to know early, so that we can work out how to implement the guidelines,” says Karl Vasau. “Teachers and support staff will step up of course, but the more we know and the more help we have, the easier it will be.”

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