Inequality, mental health challenges exacerbated by pandemic

The long-term impacts of shifting schooling online for lengthy periods remain to be seen.

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There have been some positives. For some pupils, the flexibility of less rigid timetables and deadlines allowed them to take control of their own learning.

For others, it was difficult to sustain motivation and keep up to date with their schoolwork.

One of the biggest issues was not so much caused by the pandemic, but exacerbated by it.

University of Otago College of Education programme coordinator Iain McGilchrist says while schools were generally pretty well prepared for a shift to online learning, some households were not.

‘‘Many households don’t have 1:1 device for each child, so kids were maybe sharing a laptop,’’ he says.

It was not just devices. Internet access and limits on data due to cost were also challenges.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

‘‘Also disparity, not just socioeconomically but location-wise as well, because many rural families wouldn’t have ultra fast broadband and so using Zoom with video was a real challenge.’’

The ERO report into learning during the first year of the pandemic found two-thirds of teachers, leaders and board leaders were very aware of inequitable levels of pupil and whanau access to digital devices and connectivity in low decile schools, compared with only a third in high-decile schools.

In decile 1-3 schools, 19% of pupils had to share a device. In decile 4-10 schools that figure was 14%.

Equity of access to devices for Maori and Pasifika pupils was also identified as an issue in some cases.

In addition to the Ministry of Education, many schools distributed devices to their pupils.

Mr McGilchrist believes schools have done well in focussing on the wellbeing of their pupils and adapting their programmes to reflect the reality of lockdown life.

‘‘I think very quickly schools realised you can’t keep kids on Zoom five hours a day. We get completely Zoom-zausted as adults and they do as kids as well.’’

In the longer term, he is not expecting to see a dramatic change in the academic achievement of pupils studying during the pandemic. But there are other areas that may suffer.

A large cohort of NCEA pupils did not turn up for some of their exams last year — mainly, he believes, due to already having enough credits.

But they missed out on valuable exam experience and techniques, which are important for those going on to tertiary study, he says.

Then there are the leadership experiences through extracurricular activities that also fell by the wayside.
‘‘I think kids have really missed out on the chance to try a bit of leadership, try a bit of stepping up and doing a little bit of adulting in a way where they’re coached and supported by schools and parents.’’

The pandemic has also taken its toll on mental health in general, and teens are no exception.

Dunedin clinical psychologist Vanessa Hornal says her practice, ReThink Children’s Therapy, continues to experience the high demand for services from before Covid.

‘‘We have constant queries from parents of young people seeking help, many of whom have phoned a number of practices and who have their names on wait lists at multiple places.

‘‘Certainly when we are working with tamariki/rangatahi we will often be working on issues related to lockdowns; if it is not the main issue it is often another concern that they have.’’

Everyone’s experience of lockdown, experience of schooling during lockdown and response to schooling from home is different, she says.

‘‘Helping young people and their whanau identify strategies that will work for them is important. In Otago we have great support from schools, who work with us, when we need to help our young people with this.’’