Lessons learned from schools’ return

There were smiles and tears, excitement and trepidation as New Zealand schools reopened to all pupils. And after nearly eight weeks managing home schooling, among the most relived and upset were the caregivers.

Roads and footpaths that fell quiet during the Covid-19 Alert Level 4 and 3 restrictions are again busy with vehicles and footfalls returning children to their classes, to their teachers and — importantly — to their friends.

Last night, thousands of caregivers would have asked their children about their first day back. Tired children would have outlined what they did in class, before excitedly describing the fun they had with their mates.

Adult concerns subside in such moments and as we get used to sending children to school during a global health emergency. However, not all concerns will wane as the virus does.

Such worries say as much about the pressures on our schools and education system as they do about the impacts of Covid-19.

Parents keen to get their children back into education, back to their own social circles and back to as normal a routine as possible, were anxious about sending them into a crowded space.

How could schools open with limited social distancing measures when large gatherings of adults were still banned? How could children mix freely in classrooms, but adults could not mix at bars?

They are legitimate questions given the circumstances. They also acknowledge many of us believe our classrooms need modernising and our class rolls are too big for their spaces and their teachers.

Educators have urged successive governments to reduce class sizes, arguing study after study shows pupils learn faster and perform better, with more individual attention, in smaller classes.

They have also linked the rate at which teachers burn out and leave their profession with sizeable workloads that, in turn, are inexorably linked to the number of children in their classrooms.

These arguments arise before Budgets, ahead of elections and during teacher pay negotiations. Now, many thousands of parents understand what it is to be worried about the impact of class sizes.

Many thousands are also now aware of how what happens at home, and in the wider community, affects the extent to which a pupil can learn, or even engage with their educators.

The Ministry of Education sent thousands of digital devices to thousands of children to ensure they had access to the online learning materials they needed during the lockdown.

They were sent to homes that could not afford to buy even the most basic device. Such ‘‘digital poverty’’ before lockdown meant these homes did not have the tools others took for granted.

International supply issues meant some of these devices did not arrive until last week, almost too late to be of use for children keen to catch up on their work before their schools reopened.

It is heartening to learn many schools will let their pupils keep using the devices through the year, just as they will continue to provide food to help sustain pupils’ education.

Yesterday, Greymouth High School principal Andy England told RNZ ‘‘hunger’’ was a factor for some of his pupils when he asked for feedback about how they coped during the lockdown.

The renewed school term would begin with renewed demand for school lunch clubs, and the chance demand will increase as the economic impact of the global pandemic extracts its toll.

National food charity KidsCan says getting food at school will be essential: more than 1000 New Zealanders a day went on a Jobseeker benefit in April and demand for KidsCan food was up 30% on last term.

The Government extended the school lunch scheme in its pandemic response budget, but the school year will nonetheless be difficult for pupils and educators for what Covid-19 has caused, and for the old issues now understood anew.


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