A cloud looming

The effects of Covid-19 will linger long after the country is clear of symptoms. AKO talks to schools in popular tourist centres Queenstown and Rotorua about the impact on their economies and communities.

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In the week New Zealand moved to Covid-19 Alert Level 1, jet boats and cruises returned to Lake Wakatipu. On the streets of Queenstown, restaurants and bars opened their doors without restriction. New snow fell on Coronet Peak, heralding the start of the 2020 ski season.

Locals could be forgiven for feeling a surge of optimism.

But if the population needed reminding that there would be no return to pre-Covid boom times, the Wānaka Sun newspaper was quick to oblige, publishing a bleak economic forecast, commissioned by the Queenstown Lakes District Council. The Infometrics report suggested it may take years for the region to return to pre-Covid levels of economic activity. It added that over the next year, the district’s gross domestic product (GDP) could potentially drop by around 23 percent with the loss of over 7,000 jobs.

Educators in the Lakes District needed no economic report to tell them of tough times ahead. Schools have been preparing for the downturn for some weeks. Debbie Dickson, principal of Remarkables Primary School, talks of a dark cloud looming over Wakatipu.

“We are all very conscious of it,” she says. “We don’t really know what the cloud holds. It could be heavy rain – or are we about to be buried in deep snow? We are in a real waiting period.”

“We don’t really know what the cloud holds. It could be heavy rain – or are we about to be buried in deep snow?”

Dickson says that while the community is basking in the positivity that comes from the move to Alert Level 1, there is an underlying sense of unease. Everyone knows that with international tourism halted, the region is being propped up by the Government’s wage subsidy scheme and mortgage relief offered by the major banks. Both measures have a limited life, with wage subsidies ending on 9 August.

“People are walking on eggshells, wondering whether they will have jobs once the wage subsidy ends,” says Dickson. “Many of them are already on reduced hours and they are expecting lay-offs.”

Dickson says that it’s not only those working in the tourist industry who are nervous. The construction industry, which was thriving pre-Covid, is a shadow of its former self. Sub-divisions are at a standstill and there is little new work on the horizon. The Government-funded, “shovel ready” projects will offer some relief, but these will probably be undertaken by larger companies, with the town’s sub-contractors and small businesses unlikely to see much benefit.

Debbie Dickson, principal of Remarkables Primary School.

Dickson’s concerns for the construction industry has a personal aspect.

“At our school of more than 50 staff, close to 90 percent, have partners with connections to the building industry. So our teachers and support staff are feeling the stresses alongside our families,” she says.

The Lakes District schools felt the impact of Covid-19 early. Many families, who were in New Zealand on visitor permits, packed up and left just prior to lockdown.

“Quite a few businesses shut their doors or laid off staff early,” says Dickson. “Many of those who lost their jobs were not eligible for Government support, so decided to leave. Council, agencies and local charities have been very supportive of those who have stayed, but it is still a struggle for them.”

Adding to the strain is the fact that many of the families are on visas nearing expiry. In normal times, renewal would be a formality, but with the tourist and service sectors struggling, many long-stay families face the prospect of having to leave.

“Every school in the region has a watchlist of families who are on visas that are close to expiry,” says Dickson. “Today I sat and talked with a mum and dad who have both lost their jobs. They’re living on very little and as a school we are giving them all the support we can. Their visas expire in December, so they’ve decided they and their two children are going to have to leave. That’s hard for all of them.”

“Today I sat and talked with a mum and dad who have both lost their jobs … That’s hard for all of them”

Dickson says that the school has an important role to play in supporting families and children who are impacted by hardship and uncertainty.

At nearby Queenstown Primary School, 37 percent of students are from families on work visas. Principal Fiona Cavanagh says that most of them appear to be managing – for now.

“I’ve had a few parents embarassed that their child doesn’t have the full uniform, but as yet we haven’t had more than the usual number asking for assistance with financial contributions. But once the wage subsidy ends and working visas run out, things will change significantly.”

Most schools in the district are nervous about their rolls dropping, including Queenstown Primary, with its high percentage of immigrant families.

“Kāhui Ako o Wakatipu has been meeting regularly with our ministry advisor, keeping her appraised of our context,” says Cavanagh. “We’re seeking information from the ministry about how secure our staffing is going to be.”

“In such an environment, teacher and support staff wellbeing has taken on greater focus”

Debbie Dickson says that Remarkables Primary School has never faced a falling roll.

“From the time we opened, we have always had growth. But we’re likely to lose a significant number of students and potentially we could be having to lay off staff,” she says.

In such an environment, teacher and support staff wellbeing has taken on greater focus.

“Our teachers are tired,” says Dickson. “The past couple of months have been huge in terms of change, workload and extra stress. New Zealand teachers may be unique in the world, in having 48 hours to move from classroom teaching to distance teaching. An enormous amount of work went into that.”

When they returned to school, teachers had to adapt to a changed environment with social distancing restrictions. Many had the additional stress of significantly reduced household incomes. Some were able to gain rent or mortgage relief, but not all. A number of teachers, living in school houses, have been unable to negotiate any relief from the property management company.

“We have been quite disappointed,” says one teacher. “There has been so much talk about landlords responding to people in need, but it hasn’t happened for us. It is not as though school housing is cheap here, either. We are all paying $500 or $600 a week.”

The Wakatipu Kāhui Ako surveyed teachers’ wellbeing when they returned to school at Alert Level 2. The results of that survey reinforced the need for schools to give staff more downtime. Throughout the region, teachers are now encouraged to leave school by 3:30pm, so they can spend more time with their families and complete tasks from home rather than in the school.

Dickson says that when the downturn in the district is felt more deeply, schools will be impacted.

“Potentially our staff will be the first to see the cracks in children,” says Dickson. “We are going to have to support children and families as best we can, but without owning the problem.”

She explains that there is a lack of services in the area to deal with the social fallout that will accompany recession.

“This area is filled with innovation and entrepreneurship, but there’s a lack of support services. We have one not-for-profit counselling service in Queenstown. Other than that, the closest services are in Dunedin.”

“This area is filled with innovation and entrepreneurship, but there’s a lack of support services. We have one not-for-profit counselling service in Queenstown”

The Kāhui Ako is working with the District Council and the Chamber of Commerce to build a response to the crisis. Part of that might be getting counselling services into schools.

“What’s happening in Queenstown is a big change for people,” says Dickson. “The community is used to growth, not retreat, and a lot of folk will find that a difficult adjustment. [Inland Revenue] has made it clear that families will be asset-tested before they receive support. Our kids are already overhearing Mum and Dad talking about having to sell the car or the house.”

Kāhui Ako o Wakatipu is responding to the anticipated upsurge in student anxiety by shifting its focus. At this time of year, student engagement is usually surveyed, but this year’s surveys will measure levels of resilience.

“That data will let us know where we need to go in terms of student wellbeing,” says Cavanagh.

Building resilience in students and families may require some deep discussion about values and moral purpose.

“Our society is a ‘want’ society,” says Dickson. “So we may need to have some hard conversations with our students to help them understand that what has seemed right in the past, may not be right for the future.”


In the Rotorua Lakes area, the tourist industry has been similarly hit by the economic consequences of Covid-19. A recently released Infometrics report, commissioned by Rotorua Lakes Council, forecasts a 7.8 percent contraction of the local economy with the loss of 3,700 jobs and $186 million in lost earnings.

Rawiri Wihapi, who is President of the Rotorua Principals’ Association, says that once the lockdown ended, the group quickly formed a sub-committee to respond to the economic downturn. The group is looking at how schools can partner with tourism providers by building curriculum links. They are also seeking ways to assist schools hardest hit by the downturn.

“Some of our schools that don’t receive the government’s $150 per student school donations subsidy are likely to be hit hard as families lose income,” says Wihapi.

Like their colleagues in Queenstown, Rotorua educators are waiting for the end of wage subsidy scheme to see the true impact on their community. But they are already seeing job losses.

“A number of students have told teachers that their mothers and fathers have lost jobs,” says Fred Whata, principal of Rotorua Primary School. “It’s a real challenge for those parents because they are having to consider a new career pathway.”

The school is offering assistance to families as best it can. Food packs have been distributed, along with gifts of firewood and garden mulch. Knitted clothing has been donated for 60 students. It is a pattern being repeated in schools around the region.

“Lockdown has taught us to be kind and be patient,” says Whata. “We have to re-evaluate what we can do differently, to get the best outcomes for our students and their wider whānau. We can’t save the whole world, but can support and save ourselves.”

“We have to re-evaluate what we can do differently, to get the best outcomes for our students and their wider whānau”

Like their southern colleagues, Rotorua educators are focused on building student resilience.

“Our students are seeing the world change before their eyes,” says Whata. “They are going to have to refocus their short and longterm goals.” He believes that his schools emphasis on 21st century skills, like creativity, critical thinking and collaboration will help students succeed.

Meanwhile Wihapi is confident in the ability of teachers and principals to navigate through the times ahead.

“In the past few months, teachers have faced some very big challenges,” he says. “They’ve been adaptable and creative. I believe they’ve come through that experience better equipped to deal with what lies ahead.”

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