Pandemic innovations

COVID-19 forced schools and early childhood centres to rethink the way they delivered learning. Ako talks to educators who have found the silver linings and are looking to the future.

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COVID-19 is still having a big impact on schools more than two years on, but it’s almost more complex now than it was when everyone was at home at the same time. People are less isolated and schools are open, but not without limitations and COVID-19 is still causing many staff and student absences.

Silver linings are there however, and are seen in schools in stronger connections with whānau, community organisations and social services; innovation in online and outdoor learning; and improved administrative processes.

The benefits of outdoor classroom days go well beyond limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Research conducted in 2021 by the Education Review Office (ERO) showed that students and whānau felt more anxiety around health and safety after lockdown than during it, and practices to support wellbeing have been vital, including relationship building. Subsequent research also showed that kura kaupapa did this particularly well, with clear communication, collaborative leadership and “accessing networks such as Te Rūnanganui, health and social services, government resources and iwi and hapū expertise and support”.

Stephen Lethbridge, principal of Point Chevalier Primary School and group convener of principal leadership group Pouarataki, says the group, which is there to provide proactive, strategic support and guidance to school leaders, is always looking at innovative practices. They want to reimagine what the new normal is and for the ministry and the sector to learn from each other. “We’re definitely looking at the role of hybrid learning and the notion of place and where learning takes place,” he says.

Point Chevalier Primary School principal Stephen Lethbridge

“We need to look at what the thinking is and how we can shape our support to schools in response to that thinking.”

Like schools themselves, Pouarataki wants innovation and new thinking to be long-term too, and “much more so than just a COVID response.”

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A small area of book boxes, tents and picnic mats are set up weekly at Rutherford Primary School on Auckland’s Te Atatū Peninsula. In previous years these would have been reserved for special days, but for Year 2 teacher and team leader Jemima Steel, they have become part of her normal classroom, with a weekly outdoor learning day a key part of her timetable, and a favourite day for the students.

“I make sure that the environment that I’m setting up outside is still like a classroom, so it’s not just a free for all.”

Rutherford Primary School teacher Jemima Steel

The initiative was driven largely by a desire to limit the spread of COVID-19 and do some play-based learning but it quickly became apparent that it was an ideal place for core learning too, including guided reading groups, inquiry and teaching phonics safely without masks, where mouth movement is a key teaching tool. It has also seen literacy benefits, with books and writing embraced in the outdoors.

“The boys in my class are naturally going straight to literacy learning opportunities outdoors. I’m not quite sure if it’s because it’s often located in a tent, or the relaxed feel of the outside environment,” says Steel.

The set-up is simple. Once a week, a small reading tent, gazebo, book boxes and other learning tools and loose parts play equipment are set up near her classroom, and the learning begins.

“I make sure that the environment that I’m setting up outside is still like a classroom, so it’s not just a free for all where they can just do whatever they like,” says Steel.

When they’re not doing reading, they might have the clipboards out designing something, either alone or in a group, then building that design with loose parts play equipment, which they did recently when they were learning about movement by rolling. “We’re seeing huge amounts of collaboration and learning from each other, lots of re-visiting learning and evaluating and extending thinking collaboratively.”

Working together is also helping to refresh social skills that children have been starved of through lockdowns. “They’re learning again about turn-taking, and sharing,” says Steel.

Being outdoors has also allowed Steel to teach without a mask in a safe environment, enabling the use of her mouth to teach phonics, more easily demonstrating the pronunciations of sounds like ‘th’.

Running into a parent after the first day of outdoor learning showed just why Steel was onto a good thing. “She said her daughter just had not stopped talking about it, and shared everything that she’s been doing, which is a bit of a highlight.”

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While outdoor learning has always been at the heart of their childcare centre at Capital Kids Cooperative in Wellington, manager and head teacher Megan White says its benefits have become more obvious thanks to COVID, in terms of learning and wellbeing.

“A big focus of our centre is teaching the children to be kaitiaki of our planet, and in order to do that, they have to experience papatūānuku, they need to be in nature, and the only way to do that is be out there and experiencing it hands on for themselves,” says White.

She says it brings a lot of learning opportunities, and the more you’re outside, the more opportunities you find. They also don’t have toys outside; instead the children play with natural materials and loose parts, allowing for imagination to lead the way, and the children are able to be noisier outside, without the risk of waking children having naps indoors.

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At Ross Intermediate at Palmerston North, Year 7 and 8 students have been getting a small taste of what it might be like in an online university lecture. This is thanks to COVID-19, and a visionary staff who saw opportunities through online learning to get engaging lessons out to lots of students at the same time, via their online programme, Ā Tātou Akoranga.

“We’re seeing huge amounts of collaboration and learning from each other.”

Although the programme has been invaluable during COVID-19 restrictions, it’s the future that senior leader Lorna Stanley is really looking to and harnessing the potential of their online learning programme, to change the way they learn at the school. This includes inviting experts to give engaging online lessons on key themes and special topics, which would mean centralising the curriculum and planning as a school, rather than in teams.

“There are two streams to Ā Tātou Akoranga,” says Stanley. “One is using it to run an online workshop, for instance, teaching Year 7 students how to use their emails, which is recorded and accessible afterwards, or we could run our Ross Intermediate bootcamp online, which is done at the beginning of the year, where teachers go over how the school operates and what the expectations are.

Ross Intermediate senior leader Lorna Stanley

“The second stream is using it to enrich our curriculum and make it really beneficial for learners, and using it to change the way we learn at school.”

It’s this second stream that is the most exciting for Stanley, and what it could open up in terms of learning for the students.

“It offers the opportunity for consistency, and the same lessons being delivered to everybody, or for an expert to give a lesson, particularly one is that is on theme for the term.

“Our theme for this term is iwi and the Manawatū, so we could have an expert come on and do a really engaging lesson around one of the local stories, and the students could engage in a question and answer session across the school, and then we could have follow-up with them, in the classroom.

Ā Tātou Akoranga is a fount of lessons, activities and learning support, and uses the idea of learning at scale – when learning can take place with lots of learners and fewer facilitators. In the case of Ross Intermediate, it meant that one core online lesson could essentially be shared with the whole school if needed, meaning several educators could run the lessons, and engage multiple classes, or the whole school.

“We don’t want to go back to the pre-pandemic norm”

The programme is housed on their website and delivered via Google Meet. It includes a morning PB4L meeting; two sessions of self-directed learning time using resources provided via the Student Hub; a core lesson with follow-up activities; and two timeslots which are Google Meet ‘drop-in’ sessions where students can ask questions and get guidance. It kicks in at Stage Two of the school’s four-stage plan, which is based on staffing loss. At Stage Two, with moderate staffing loss, any learners offsite would start Ā Tātou Akoranga, which was delivered by offsite leaders and teachers, including any at home in isolation but well enough to participate.

The online programme has been particularly beneficial for relievers, especially when those relievers have been specialist teachers not used to a traditional classroom.

Stanley had a first-hand taste of what the programme could be, when she delivered an indepth online lesson on typography, looking at the history of typeface and fonts, and shared activities to do after the lesson. Her in-person visits to classrooms in the days after delivering the online lesson showed her just how engaged the students were with the topic, as they were engrossed in the follow-up activities and excited to show her their work. “The opportunities are limitless.”

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Glen Taylor School principal Chris Herlihy recalls a particular quote that has guided him at times in his career – that great leaders are remembered for how they handled a crisis. He has felt this keenly twice in his career; once when there was a death within the school community, and again in 2020, with COVID-19.

“It’s been a great opportunity to create a new normal – take the good stuff we’ve done and build on it.”

His success at turning his Glen Innes school into a community hub, a highly trusted source of support and information, and place of joy and connection during that time, proves that he is indeed one of those leaders, and he is determined to continue this collaborative spirit for the long term.

“We don’t want to go back to the pre-pandemic norm,” he says.

The school moved swiftly in early 2020, setting up online learning within 48 hours, and providing students with Chromebooks or hard learning packs. They also started talking to their community, and providing essential information that some were not getting elsewhere, and practical support via food parcels.

“I knew it was my job as a leader to make decisions and communicate them clearly,” says Herlihy.

The increased availability of digital devices to use at home since the pandemic has helped students and staff stay connected.

As well as practical support, the school offered fun and celebration and at the end of 2021, they did a mobile prize-giving, with senior leaders packing up the prizes and donated gifts in a car and travelling to students’ homes, with the event documented on Facebook Live. They had enough donated gifts for each student to receive something for an end of year treat.

On the return to school in 2022, this sense of fun has again been a focus, and the school has prioritised wellbeing for staff and students, having more outdoor time for the students and staff, and an open day to welcome families back in Term 2. They have also worked hard to build on the connections formed during COVID with social agencies and embed this into the school.

This has included working with families who need support, either via providing food parcels, or to assist in getting students back attending school. During the early weeks of the return to school, they accessed funding to employ a local community member and school parent who worked with families to boost attendance, which had fallen to below 40 percent. This is something they would like to fund again in the future, and Herlihy credits it for kickstarting a successful drive to improve attendance. They followed it up with another intensive programme, ‘Operation Attend,’ run with the Social Worker in Schools (SWIS) programme, Auckland City Education Services and police, and all the efforts have boosted attendance back to 90 percent. Operation Attend saw these agencies working alongside families where attendance is an ongoing issue, in a supportive rather than punitive way, digging into the reasons behind nonattendance, and often beginning the conversation with a food parcel for the family.

“It’s been a great opportunity to create a new normal and take the good stuff we’ve done and build on it,” says Herlihy.

***

It’s often in the background, but it’s the administrative side of school that keeps everything ticking, from payroll, to newsletters, to playground maintenance.

For Julie-Anne Roberts, Leadership Support Specialist – Admin Manager at Auckland’s Alfriston College, one of their major changes was getting laptops to each member of staff, and while this may sound simple, it meant learning assistants could connect with the students with whom they work closely in the classroom. The online class sessions did not always suit these students’ learning needs and with a laptop, learning assistants could give them one-on-one time to stay connected and learning.

Alfriston College leadership support specialist Julie-Anne Roberts

Students were also provided devices if they didn’t have access to them at home, so all learners had the ability to connect with somebody and laptops also meant that all staff could more easily work remotely, or for instance if they were in isolation but not ill, they could do teaching from home.

“With all the staff having devices we were also able to ensure our admin office could stay functionable during the lockdown and our community was able to be in contact with us for notifying if their child had tested positive, enrolments and general enquiries,” says Roberts.

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A long overdue change to a paperless office was a great silver lining for Cheryl English, Shared Staff Business Manager for Shirley Boys’ High School and Avonside Girls’ High School. Both schools moved to a new build in April 2019 and have a combined roll of 2500. Each school has school-specific teaching staff and administration staff and there are 13 admin staff members where the salary cost is shared by both schools under a co-location agreement.

They shifted to Xero before the lockdowns, but have since started using more of the software packages available to enable digital invoicing such as ApprovalMax, and use Adobe systems to securely sign files, combine, stamp and notate.

“It’s improved things dramatically, it’s spread the workload through the month more evenly so we don’t get these huge bubbles of work around the 20th of the month and we don’t have piles of paper everywhere as everything is electronically checked and signed. We’re also not reliant on our senior leadership team or a principal to sit down and go through it.”

Like the team at Alfriston College, English too relishes the new ability to work from home when needed, as the provision of laptops during COVID-19 was extended when the benefits were seen.

“A number of our administration staff now have a high specification laptop and plug into a docking station which enables them to be mobile and work from home, and they only need to maintain one desktop,” she says.

“We will be keeping all the changes we have made; when something hasn’t worked the first time or needs some tweaking, we have kept the conversation going and adapted until we had the fit right for our schools.”

Stephen Lethbridge echoes Chris Herlihy’s belief that it’s in times of crisis or uncertainty that good leaders really show what they’re made of, and leading a school through COVID-19 and into the future is one of those times.

“Now’s the time more than ever when really good leadership needs to happen.”

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