Managing a pandemic in a remote community

Issue: Volume 101, Number 4

Posted: 6 April 2022
Reference #: 1HATZT

Schools throughout Aotearoa have faced many challenges in managing Covid-19. For schools on Aotea Great Barrier Island, there have been additional challenges due to the remote nature of the community in a ‘world of its own’.

Kaitoke School principal Leo De Beurs helped collect Rapid Antigen Tests to be distributed to schools across the island.

Kaitoke School principal Leo De Beurs helped collect Rapid Antigen Tests to be distributed to schools across the island.

Describing one of the challenges facing Kaitoke School, secretary Tamar Warwick simply says, “only on Great Barrier Island.”

She is referring to a disruptive group that has been vandalising the school, hanging around each day, and who are not afraid of anyone. The perpetrators in question? A group of marauding pigs.

The closeness of wildlife is one of the features of Aotea Great Barrier Island which is situated on the outer edge of the Hauraki Gulf in Aotearoa’s only National Marine Park. Over 70 percent of the land has landscape and native forest under the protection of the Department of Conservation. There is broadband access, and currently there is cell phone coverage for most parts of the island. 

The island is self-sufficient for power using the sun, wind and generators. Mulberry Grove School principal Allison Gibbs (Ally) says everybody’s power system is unique and can vary between having a car battery for lights, to having a full-blown generator.

“We have solar panels and a backup generator. A diesel generator that we run, but not very often. And we collect the water off the roof.”

Rich learning environment

The island has a permanent population of around 950 people who are serviced by three schools, Kaitoke, Okiwi, and Mulberry Grove, which cater for children in Years 1 to 8.

Okiwi School is located at the northern end of Great Barrier Island where nearly 90 percent of ākonga identify as Māori. They have a strong focus on whānau and community, and foster a sense of belonging in valuing Māori language, culture and identity.

Kaitoke School is situated in the middle of the island. It runs two classrooms and despite the remote location offers older students the opportunity to learn foreign languages online. It also boasts of having an Education Outside the Classroom experience that would rival most schools on the mainland.

“We are fortunate that we have a Hillary Outdoors centre that the children have easy access to,” says principal Leo De Beurs.

At the southern end of the island is Mulberry Grove School. Even though the school is in the more populated end of the island it is still very rural.

“We can just walk through the fence, and we are at the beach. The children can watch the dolphins and the orca swim in,” explains Ally.

All of the schools make use of the local environment to enhance the curriculum, including incorporating ecology and marine life into the learning environment. An interschool swimming competition uses the sea rather than a swimming pool.

Making the most of a unique environment: Kaitoke School's playground is situated in native bush and country.

Making the most of a unique environment: Kaitoke School's playground is situated in native bush and country.

As Ally says, “We have a marine environment that is a really rich learning environment. We go sailing, and kayaking is an extra programme for our older students.

“A lot of our local curriculum is based around the environment. We do bush conservation and we’ve got little blue penguins that live nearby, so we conduct the Little Blue Penguin project. We’re also working on the Whale Tail project.”    

Limited access to resources

Covid-19 has provided extra challenges for the schools. One of the major challenges has been the ability to receive supplies.

“We can’t just go to a shop to get what we need. There are some things you can buy here but it is more expensive. We do rely on the freight service, which has recently been very limited. Some things are taking three to four weeks, when we used to get them overnight. So, our biggest challenge is getting our mail and getting those supply lines,” says Ally.

Mulberry Grove teachers have been limiting their outside contacts by only going to school and not socialising to reduce the chance of becoming unable to teach.

“We do not have relievers, so they [the teaching staff] make sure they’re not going anywhere to socialise. They go to school and come in, then go home, so they are not interacting with anybody outside of the school. It’s about keeping themselves well so that we can continue to keep the school open,” explains Ally.

As with the other schools, the size of the community allows Mulberry Grove to build good relationships with the students and their whānau. As well as providing students with learning materials the school has met other needs. Ally describes some of the support given for families having to isolate.

“With any packages, we would deliver them because we could. You know, if it was Easter, we’d send out an Easter pack within two weeks for the families. We are a ‘KidsCan’ school so with any of our supplies we did these up in boxes and delivered food out to our families since we couldn’t feed the children in the school. We had a roster between the teachers calling different families checking in with them and asking if there was anything they needed.” 

Mulberry Grove students working on their Whale Tail project, taking inspiration from the marine environment.

Mulberry Grove students working on their Whale Tail project, taking inspiration from the marine environment.

Support and connection

Mask-wearing has presented some challenges. There are families on the island who do not want their children to wear masks.

“We have to be creative about masks. They [the children] can’t understand why they’ve got to, and others don’t,” says Leo.

The schools maximise their outdoor surroundings so that students and teachers can have mask-free time.

Ally explains, “Our approach has always been through empathy and care, not judging the family, not pushing, but making sure that no child felt that they would be singled out coming to school.

“So that’s why we put up a marquee off the deck. All the children were outside, we just made sure that they were socially distanced.”

The schools have worked together to provide some support and connectedness. As a recent example, Mulberry Grove picked up the tests from Kaitoke and Tamar, who was going on a camping trip close to Okiwi, dropped off the other tests.

However, Covid-19 has placed limits on this connection. Both Leo and Ally mourn the loss of shared activities that allow the children to engage with each other. They were unable to have interschool swimming, sailing or cross-country. In a small community the ability to interact with peers is very important. Whilst some of the island activity groups have been able to continue, some have not.

Getting back into a routine

Re-establishing a routine for the children is also a high priority. According to Leo, “It has been interesting because school has been disrupted the last couple of years. Children need to get back the consistency of going to a learning institution and we’ve really had to get back to reinforcing this is a learning institution.” 

This is reinforced by Ally, who says, “It’s been really hard to teach from a distance and it can feel a little bit overwhelming when we see children that are finding it difficult to settle back into routines, because they are used to glide time.”

Leo and Ally are aware that the isolation periods may have created learning gaps for families who were not able to adjust to home schooling. They are preparing for the additional work that might be needed to progress learning growth in these students.

The schools are also conscious of developing skills for the students to cope and deal with the pandemic as well as what life will hold for them beyond the island.

“We teach and encourage the students to do controlled breathing. This can help them to de-stress. I will model it at times in class when we need to relax. I will say to the students, we just need to breathe,” says Ally.

Being in a remote community can present some difficulties but Ally and Leo appreciate the unique nature of Great Barrier Island.

Leo explains, “We’re only half an hour away from Auckland, by plane. So, we’re isolated but we’re not that isolated, and sometimes isolation is a good thing. I have never been stuck in a traffic jam. I don’t have to worry about anything being stolen. I can go out and not lock my house. Those sorts of things make this a special place to be.”

As Ally puts it, “I can sit here in my office and see the tides. I watch the children, and I never want to take any of it for granted. I’ve been here for over 11 years, and every day I still say ‘Wow’.”


RATs on a plane

A senior education advisor took an innovative approach when schools on Great Barrier Island urgently needed Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) – she decided to fly them there herself. 

Ingrid Stewart acts as the liaison between the Ministry of Education and schools to build and maintain successful relationships, solve complex problems and to support and implement change initiatives.

Ally, Mulberry Grove School principal, says the plan was “above and beyond”, and it was quite literally that – Ingrid used her flying lesson to deliver the RATs so the community didn’t have to wait too long with freight delays. 

Great Barrier Island has a regular delivery schedule, but this had been under strain as a result of Omicron. This meant that the next arranged delivery for the RATs was scheduled for two weeks away at a time when there was a pressing need.

With some cases in the community, Ally says, “Everybody was screaming out for them.”

A plan is devised

The tests needed to get to Great Barrier Island, but the big question was how? Some creative thinking was required.

“I started to think of different things, but each time it was, ‘no that won’t work’. I even joked with Ally that maybe I could swim over there to deliver them,” says Ingrid.

She was in her aviation class when a brainwave hit her.

“Support is so important, keeping them going – they’re doing a great job but can feel isolated with the geographic distance.

“I asked my instructor if I could do my training lesson to Great Barrier, and he said I could. I rang to organise it and I was told I could go at 1.30pm the next day. I then asked my manager about it. She was supportive. We have a really neat team of colleagues who work hard to support the schools, and we all know with Covid everyone needs a little bit of lifting up.”

Ingrid arrived at the airfield, where two pilots helped her load the RATs into the plane. They supplied large plastic bags as the box she had the RATs in was not suitable for the space at the back of the plane.  

The flight took 40 minutes. Upon landing Ingrid was met by Leo, Kaitoke School principal, who helped with transporting the tests to his school for distribution.

“When I met her, she had three big black rubbish bags, plus one of her own bags, full of RATs. She had more that she could give us but came out on a little plane so that was all the room they had,” says Leo.

Ally adds, “What Ingrid did makes us feel so completely valued. Sometimes it feels like remote school needs are put into the too hard basket, so to have somebody willing to go such lengths, not just an extra mile, but an extra hundred miles, made us feel like we are important.” 

 Ingrid Stewart used a flying lesson to deliver Rapid Antigen Tests to Aotea Great Barrier Island.

Ingrid Stewart used a flying lesson to deliver Rapid Antigen Tests to Aotea Great Barrier Island.

Aotea Learning Hub on Great Barrier Island

In 2016, the community of Aotea Great Barrier Island rallied together in response to low engagement by many students who chose to remain on the island for their secondary schooling.

An ‘Education Steering Group’ explored different models that harness the providers, employers and resources that the island offers to better support their young people.

As part of a pilot proposed for 2017, the students were offered a ‘Learning Hub’ base where students were expected to attend three days per week for core curriculum learning delivered through Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu, with a wrap-around of pastoral support, and two days per week of secondary-tertiary opportunities and/or work experience and training.

With the support of a wide number of collaborative partners, this mahi culminated in the opening of a new Aotea Learning Hub in late March. Funded by the Ministry of Education, the hub is now located on the Kaitoke School grounds, with both the Ministry and Te Kura funding teaching and support staff.

Keep an eye out for more information in a future edition of  Education Gazette or online at link)

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 12:01 pm, 6 April 2022

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