Schools take a step into the unknown

Schools reopen for students this Wednesday, but in an environment unlike ever before. Sam Sachdeva looks at how teachers will cope with education in the age of Covid-19.

The sound of chairs scraping on floors and bells ringing will return on Wednesday as schools reopen for the first time in a month - but students and staff alike will be entering unexplored territory.

With many students still working from home at Alert Level 3 during the coronavirus pandemic, those who are on the premises will be faced with unique challenges.

NZEI president Liam Rutherford told Newsroom there was an acceptance among teachers and principals that “schooling at Level 3 is not going to be what we’ve traditionally known it to be”.

There were already inventive ideas popping up about how to manage ‘bubbles’ of students within school, maintaining physical distancing requirements and heightened hygiene standards while educating both the children who were on site and those at home.

Kate Gainsford, the principal of Aotea College in Porirua, said her secondary school had implemented an elevated regime of cleaning before the lockdown which it would continue, with a deep clean the week before lessons resumed.

The school had a supply of gloves and hand sanitisers, and was asking students to use their own internet devices rather than sharing equipment, with periodic cleaning of the devices they were using.

“Play is going to be incredibly, incredibly boring, really, because the advice is that you can't share equipment so you can't play basketball, you can't do soccer, you can’t do rugby or netball."

Wayne Jenkins, the principal of Ross Intermediate in Palmerston North, said groups of students would be assigned particular bathrooms to use and required to stay within the same grouping with a teacher supervising them. 

“Play is going to be incredibly, incredibly boring, really, because the advice is that you can't share equipment so you can't play basketball, you can't do soccer, you can’t do rugby or netball, but there are a lot of physical activities you can still do as a group that don't require that contact, and teachers are really resourceful at coming up with different ways of doing it.”

Many teachers would remain at home to deliver online learning courses, with those without assigned classes providing on-site supervision for the small minority of students who did need to attend.

“When it will become a challenge is when half your students are on site and half of them are at home, because then you don't have the staffing to be able to have it separated...but I would like to hope by the end of this term, we're starting to see things return to normal.”

Both schools use some forms of Modern Learning Environments (MLEs), open-plan areas developed by the Ministry of Education in 2011 to allow multiple classes to learn together in the same space.

Managing MLEs

Jenkins said his school had a mixture of traditional classrooms and MLEs that could be opened up to more than one class of students, either of which he believed would work well at Level 3.

“One of the key things to note is that MLE or single-cell [classrooms] aside, schools are not going to look the same at all, and really, the biggest challenges aren't even necessarily around the learning environment, but it's the social nature of kids in, sort-of, trying to say, ‘Keep distance from each other’.”

Jenkins said MLEs could still have physical separation within them, while teachers who worked in those environments were used to overseeing several different groups of students learning in distinct parts of the building.

Gainsford said her school’s MLE facilities were easier to clean and maintain than the “damp, dark and less well-ventilated buildings” they had replaced.

Some of the school’s rooms could be separated with glass doors to provide isolated spaces, while the larger areas allowed desks and workspaces to be spread out. 

Schools have been aided in their work by the low numbers of families indicating their children would need to attend at Level 3, despite the fears of some principals that they would be turned into a baby-sitting service.

Rutherford said principals were expecting anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of their school rolls to be back on site - a number he credited to both families erring on the side of caution and the Government explaining to the public that schools could not return to business as usual.

“You don’t want to be in the situation of thinking you’re setting something up for 20 people, then on the day you're having to scramble to look after 200 or 300.”

Those estimates were backed up by Jenkins and Gainsford: the former said less than 5 percent of his school’s 600 children were expected to return, while the latter was expecting only a handful of her school’s 500 Year 9s and 10s.

“I think there is a general feeling amongst parents that ... it's not the right place for kids to be right now under Level 3,” Jenkins said.

Gainsford said the clarity from parents about their plans had helped to ease some of the anxiety experienced by teachers.

“You don’t want to be in the situation of thinking you’re setting something up for 20 people, then on the day you're having to scramble to look after 200 or 300.”

There was a concerted publicity blitz from both government ministers and officials last week to reassure worried educators, Education Minister Chris Hipkins fronting an hour-long press conference on Tuesday before Education Secretary Iona Holsted and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield held a Facebook Live later that afternoon.

Rutherford said the close working relationship between the Ministry of Education, NZEI and PPTA was reaping rewards as the unions shared information and updates with the education sector to address their concerns.

“What I think that’s done is it’s actually provided a lot of reassurance to principals, teachers and support staff and allowed them to focus on that really important role they want to.”

The processes in place would allow schools and the ministry to deal with any new issues as they arose, with one area of concern as the country moved into a “new normal” likely to be the health and wellbeing of students as they came to terms with what it had been like being part of a pandemic.

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