Navigating Covid-19: school leaders reflect

Issue: Volume 101, Number 6

Posted: 19 May 2022
Reference #: 1HAU3z

Former principals Steve Lindsey and Erika Ross ask a handful of Auckland principals about their experiences of leading their school communities through a pandemic.

Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate Middle School: Connecting with families to lift attendance 

Both deputy principal Iqbal Hussein and principal Kallie Ngakuri-Syde approach challenges as opportunities to problem-solve.

Both deputy principal Iqbal Hussein and principal Kallie Ngakuri-Syde approach challenges as opportunities to problem-solve.

Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate Middle School principal Kallie Ngakuri-de says they worked directly with families to get students back to school and engaged with their learning following the Omicron outbreak.

By week 6 of term 1, 2022, student attendance at Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate Middle School was at 35 percent, due to the effects of Omicron within the community. In response to this, principal Kallie Ngakuri-Syde and her staff mobilised themselves and embarked on a collaborative strategy that successfully brought students back to school. 

After regularly communicating to the community that it was safe for students to be at school, there was still reluctance from a significant number of families to send their children. Absence from school was often due to extended isolation times when it was not necessary. Regular contact by teachers with families to encourage them to send their children back to school was useful, but not enough. Kallie and her team decided that in order to get their students back to school it was necessary to find out what was happening at home, to better understand why students were not attending school. 

Staff were organised into teams of four, with one person designated to make a home visit if necessary. Families were contacted directly to ascertain the reasons for students’ absences. Information was recorded centrally and continuously updated. All leaders and teachers had access to this information and could quickly find out the current situation and the steps taken for any particular student. 

Meeting together at the beginning of each day helped staff become briefed on what was happening for that day and to be informed of progress made. Lists were collated of those students and families that could benefit from ‘an individual touch’, which then prompted the community liaison person to make a home visit.

Visiting families and students in their homes enabled the correct school information to be shared and also provided an opportunity to assess whether there were other resources needed for support. 

Kallie and her team found that some families were in “dire straits for food” and therefore 160 food packs were distributed. 

“There was a lot of misinformation in the community, and many families didn’t understand what was required with isolation,” she says. This provided an opportunity for staff to communicate the correct information and answer questions. An information sheet was created and shared that outlined the names and locations of local organisations and agencies that could give families support if needed.  

The Social Worker in Schools (SWIS) service was also used to assist with the families in difficult situations and would often provide additional information that included where to receive medical help, what to do if someone in the household had lost their job and how to apply for financial assistance. 

The consistent message conveyed to families was that it was safe for students be at school and that it was the best place for their continued learning. Staff had to be firm and remind some families that their child had been away for nearly 20 days and that they might run the risk of being removed from the school roll if they did not attend. Kallie reflects that it was unfortunate that they had to have those conversations, but “it got the job done and students returned to school”. 

Within two to three weeks, student attendance was at 91 percent, with any absences being justified. 

Year 8 students settled back into the culture of the school, however Year 7 students were struggling and finding it difficult, says Kallie. “They lack the social and emotional skills that we would normally see at this age.” In response to this, the school is introducing a comprehensive wellbeing programme.   

The team at Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate Middle School are unsure as to which specific activities really made the difference to the success of their strategy, however their proactive and collaborative actions have resulted in gaining a very good understanding of their community and have strengthened connections with their students and families. 

Leaders and staff took collective ownership of the attendance problem and a collaborative approach to solve it. The success of their strategy undoubtedly meant that the disruptions to learning were significantly reduced and students are now back where they belong and where they learn best.

Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate Middle School
Location: Ōtara, Auckland
School type: Y7-8 Co-educational State Intermediate
Approx roll: 270
Principal: Kallie Ngakuri-Syde
School website: link)
Contact details:


Flatbush Primary: Embedding learnings from navigating

Flatbush Primary principal Banapa Avatea says opportunities have emerged from the pandemic.

Flatbush Primary principal Banapa Avatea says opportunities have emerged from the pandemic.

Reporting to parents, celebrating achievements and school transitions are just some of the things Flatbush Primary is approaching differently as a result of Covid-19.

Principal Banapa Avatea’s links with Flatbush School run deep.  On a shelf in the principal’s office an old staff photo, taken many years ago, reveals his mother, then a young teacher on the school’s staff.

“She was carrying me when this was taken so you could say I have spent all my life at this school,” he says.

Those connections and commitment no doubt stood him in good stead during the last challenging two years.

Term 1 this year has been the school’s hardest yet during the pandemic, and Banapa says it impressed on him just how resilient children are – as they have had to be,  especially this term.

Flatbush School had its first positive case on 21 February and by the 22nd further close contacts had been identified. That night the phones did not stop while all families were contacted and by late February the whole school was affected in some way.

Parents were anxious, but as a community, stood with and behind staff, firmly committed to keeping everyone safe. At one stage only 80 students were able to attend school, and 17 staff had to stay away. It was difficult for many families, especially with multiple generations in the same home and heightened concern about older family. It was difficult, too, for teachers who had to plan and re-plan as the Covid situation kept changing.

Remarkably, with clear communication and connecting with families, the school had 360 students – 87 percent – back by the end of term 1, and it continues to engage with those still to return.

The school has provided food parcels, worked to connect all families to the internet (an ongoing task) and sent Chromebooks home. Past work connecting with the community and building relationships has paid off and the school received some generous donations, including 15 Chromebooks, to add to the support redirected by the Board of Trustees.

Banapa says staff have learned a lot about themselves during the pandemic. They’ve learned to be more flexible and able to adjust when things are constantly changing. They’ve also learned that some things don’t change – parents are anxious about their children and want the best for them, teachers and support staff want to do the best they can for their children. When a leader can put themselves in those shoes, it becomes easier to identify what needs to be focused on.

Providing consistent support and communicating with integrity helped to build on the school’s already strong culture and the confidence the community had in the school. Clear, consistent and timely communication proved vital – using every possible channel available whether online or face to face helped ensure that everyone had the information they needed to feel confident and reassured that what was needed was being done. Information from the Ministry of Education helped, though at times it felt overwhelming and could land late in the day, which was a challenge given the need to review processes for the following day and to translate key messages for the school’s predominantly ESOL community. Having a strong leadership team helped, and the team spent time each day talking through what they needed to do.

A supportive Board provided resources that enabled Banapa to support the teaching and non-teaching staff. Keeping them all connected (online for much of the time), ensuring there were social interactions, regular meetings, celebrations of positive actions and, at times, care packages that meant staff felt valued and appreciated and were in the best possible place to model calm responses to the pandemic as well as excitement about learning opportunities.

The school notes several opportunities to have come out of the pandemic. As well as celebrating achievements across social, academic, arts and sports, the school has reframed the way it reports to parents. Its new system provides a celebration each term of each child’s success and, in turn, affirmation of their parents’ success as parents. The language the school will use speaks more effectively with its families, too, such as identifying three stars and a wish rather than talking about ‘setting objectives’.

Another positive has been the establishment of a transition room for the school’s new 5 year olds. This cohort of students has missed out on participation in early learning centres and general play with peers, so the focus of transition will be on social skills and learning to regulate emotions, for example learning to take turns, learning through games, losing without feeling your whole world has ended while also learning to win with humility.

Banapa sees his role as maintaining connections, keeping everyone well informed and supported, and helping the school to move forward. He knows some things have not been as successful as they might and is realistic – “it can’t all be rainbows and unicorns” – especially given there are further challenges ahead (in addition to the 23 building projects completed since he started at the school). Yet, having built and maintained a positive school community, Banapa knows they will work together to manage whatever comes next.

Flat Bush School
Location: Ōtara, Auckland
School type: Y1-6 Co-educational State Primary
Approx roll: 410
Principal: Banapa Avatea
School website: link)
Contact details:


Glen Taylor School: School the hub of the community

Principal Chris Herlihy and ākonga from Glen Taylor School

Principal Chris Herlihy and ākonga from Glen Taylor School

Principal of Auckland’s Glen Taylor School Chris Herlihy, says they are keen to retain the innovation, fun and engagement that emerged as the school navigated the pandemic.

Within 48 hours of the first Covid lockdown in 2020, Glen Taylor School’s staff had set up a digital environment with blogs and various active platforms (including Therapy Dog) that were visible anywhere, anytime. Teachers found and set up Chromebooks for the 25 learners in Years 4–8 who needed them and set up a system to prepare 110 hard packs for all Year 1–3 learners, which support staff delivered to homes. By 23 March, each class was set up with online meetings.

The speed with which the school responded was just one measure of its staff’s dedication, which an appreciative community described as “inspirational”.

Principal Chris Herlihy says the Board of Trustees was incredibly supportive, which helped staff when they had to contend with lots of unanticipated challenges, such as delivering student medication that was stored at school and accessing chargers for the devices. 

The school deliberately rotated its leadership team so there was always a leader available, which proved fortuitous when one of the team contracted Covid-19. The team’s work day shifted to late in the evening, with much of its work done from 6pm to 10pm, after the Ministry of Education’s daily 6pm update, when the team could more effectively plan the next day.

Chris says the Ministry’s 6pm communication was indispensable. “We were able to plan, communicate in real time, often just cutting and pasting the relevant key messages. This saved such a lot of time and allayed people’s worries.”

As principal, he went to great lengths to ensure staff knew how much they were appreciated – holding daily meetings, Friday catch-ups, online social events, dress-up days, and online competitions. The Board funded wellbeing initiatives, including occupational and EAP (employee assistance programme) support for teaching and non-teaching staff.

Chris says the school became a crucial hub and support for the wider community and it worked closely with external agencies to access food parcels and support for various social and health issues. Every Friday, Chris met with the local DHB to work together on what was needed and then updated the staff. The school also used some additional Ministry funding to employ a matai to engage with families, which proved so effective that the Board is now considering continuing to fund the position into the future.

“This approach needs to become the norm and social agencies as a hub potentially based in schools may need to be the way of the future,” Chris says.

As did most schools, Glen Taylor School faced some big challenges, the first when the school holidays were brought forward. The move did not suit Glen Taylor’s community and there was concern the early break would seriously affect future engagement. Chris lobbied successfully to make the school an exception and it continued with the normal holiday schedule, roping in well-known personalities to appear on a ‘Legends with Larrikin Leaders’ online to keep students engaged through the holiday break.

In other areas, the school adapted. To avoid raising further anxiety, it dispensed with formal assessments. It found some learners had excelled in home-based learning, so attention was given to those who had not. Its emphasis has been on re-engaging through positive relationships, and alongside strong systems for tracking each learner, the school has pulled levels of engagement back to normal.

Chris is already thinking about how to avoid returning to the pre-pandemic norm and instead, encouraging the innovation, fun and engagement that emerged during the pandemic, which included tapping community resources in innovative ways to gain donations that provided every learner with gifts at the school prizegiving.

The culture of the school is one of celebration, and every opportunity is taken to affirm the great work being done by all parts of the community. Staff have missed having parents in the school and are planning a big launch next term with an open day for parents to welcome their return. Chris is convinced that schools are the heart of their communities, and he continues to focus his leadership on making that true for Glen Taylor School.

Glen Taylor School
Location: Glendowie, Auckland
School type: Y1-8 Co-educational State Full Primary
Approx roll: 230
Principal: Chris Herlihy
School website: link)
Contact details:


Ormiston Primary: Leading a large school community through change

Ormiston Primary principal Heath McNeil says his focus was 100 percent on engaging learners.

Ormiston Primary principal Heath McNeil says his focus was 100 percent on engaging learners.

Ormiston Primary was one of the first schools in the country to grapple with Covid-19.

As if being one of the biggest primary schools in the country was not enough of a challenge, Ormiston Primary was also one of the first on the pandemic frontline with Covid-19 cases 3 and 5 in the community.

Principal Heath McNeil reflects that, in some ways, it was good to be first. “It gave us time to really get into the whole new way of thinking and working.”

Heath was quick to work with and draw on the expertise of others. He and the leader of Ormiston Junior College met daily – sometimes frequently each day – to work through a joint response so that the community was given timely and consistent messages. This collegial support and distributed leadership was invaluable.

Drawing on the regional principals’ association’s support, and the Ministry of Education’s Bulletin, they crafted accurate and timely messages that avoided panic and ensured calm, and kept the school’s community fully informed.

This regular communication was essential. Heath drew on an existing online platform and other sources to enable the community to ask questions, raise concerns and give feedback. One of the positive outcomes of this intense communication was that the school and community developed a much deeper appreciation of each other, and the relationship became more equal.

Heath says this in turn helped him to develop differentiated strategies with empathy for the personal circumstances of families – the intergenerational nature of so many homes, their financial circumstances, and so on – which built trust and confidence across the community.

His focus was 100 percent on engagement and every decision was made through three lenses: How would it impact learners and learning? How would it impact staff? How would it impact families?      

Staff and students initially worked online, which required a lot of new learning for all. In term 4 last year the school moved to a hybrid programme, with a mix of face to face for those who could attend and online for those unable to do so. The team-teaching approach that had been a strength of the school not only enabled them to stay open for instruction but no matter who of the teaching staff was absent, every student had someone who knew them as learners. This structure also ensured staff worked alongside people who really knew them and could better support each other.

This year, in term 1, the school’s online approach changed as Covid impacted attendance and the school moved to hard packs – and packs that did not require support from parents, who were, in many cases, affected by Covid themselves. This was no small task: over 1,000 packs were needed each term, and Heath organised for staff at each level to collaborate and prepare a model pack, and then assigned an off-site staff member to create three more packs at each level and oversee the commercial printing, which cost $20,000. The Board’s support for redirecting resources and budget was essential for this approach and it ensured staff were not overwhelmed.

Heath also turned to a check-in app for staff and learners to ensure he could monitor what was needed and develop the resources and support required. This monitoring helped to identify a digital divide, and the Board decided to fund more devices and all stationery this year to remove any barrier for families.

Heath believes it would have been good if this level of ‘check-in’ monitoring app could be financially supported at a national level so data could be gathered extensively and in real time, rather than just by the schools who could afford to do it. That might also have helped the system itself identify and address issues such as that which arose for schools trying to get devices for students but hampered by the Ministry limits on leasing equipment. Heath believes this would have been an easy fix. Data-gathering would also be useful for capturing learning and innovation across the school network.

Heath says many things have changed at Ormiston since the onset of Covid. Online learner-led conferences have been accepted; the option of Zoom meetings has enabled more working parents to attend and learning assistants are used more effectively for learners needing additional support.

Strong communication and empathy for parents and learners helped gain support for these and other changes. Indeed, the trust enabled by Heath’s leadership is aptly demonstrated by parents’ adherence with the school’s rules, replacing the requirement to stay out of school grounds. Ormiston’s size meant it could potentially have had 1,200 or more parents at its front gate daily – a likely super spreader event. Instead, Heath communicated with families and staff that parents could bring their children inside the grounds if they wore full masks, observed 2-metre distancing and never entered the classrooms. He not only won parents’ agreement, but also their full compliance.  

Heath says he has realised the community’s capacity to be innovative, and the powerful outcomes that can be achieved with good communication and relationships that ensure everyone feels they have some control over their situation.

“My role is to recognise we will move up and down levels and to lead the development of actions and strategies that take us as a school calmly through those changes.”

He reflected that his ability as a leader to think, plan and prepare but not commit too soon enabled him to give his community enough certainty but also the flexibility and confidence to adjust quickly when things suddenly changed.

He says the experience has been rewarding in many ways. The school has managed to stay open throughout term 1. Every day has been a good day. And the community is fully supportive and growing stronger together.

Ormiston Primary School
Location: Manukau, Auckland
School type: Y1-6 Co-educational State Primary
Approx roll: 1060
Principal: Heath McNeil
School website: link)
Contact details:

Western Springs College: Communication the key to navigating Covid

Western Springs College principal Ivan Davis kept his updates informative, honest and light during Covid. 

Western Springs College principal Ivan Davis kept his updates informative, honest and light during Covid. 

For Auckland’s Western Springs College principal Ivan Davis, direct and daily communication was essential during Covid-19.

Ivan Davis wanted his principal’s updates to be informative, to lighten the mood, and take away any anxiety that parents and caregivers may have had – his over-arching message: “We’ve got this!”

Daily updates were typically one or two pages long and would include relevant and up-to-date information and procedures relating to the pandemic. With the goal of easing parents’ anxiety about their child’s learning, the updates would address topics such as achievement and assessment, as well as providing reassurance that the school was responding appropriately and had a plan in place.

Student engagement with learning online was also discussed, including ways in which parents and caregivers could be more involved with the learning at home. The opportunity for parents to receive email updates on their child’s activity in Google Classroom was well received; the response to sign up was immediate and significant. 

All learning programmes operated from Google Classroom, when students were required to learn from home. There was an expectation for students to touch base with their form teacher at the start of each week, and then each day work from a learning timetable from 9am until 1pm. The afternoon was left free for other activities, acknowledging that being in lockdown was difficult for some students and their families.

The community was also kept informed on possible future actions that the school might take, such as a rostering home programme. This enabled parents and caregivers to make the necessary preparations in advance of any programme or action being introduced. 

Rostering home of individual year levels (except for Year 13) was introduced in response to the Omicron outbreak and to mitigate the effects of staff absences. Once rostering home was retired, students quickly returned to school with many now appreciating the importance of belonging and learning together. 

Adding some levity to the updates, Ivan included an appropriate song to capture the current mood, including Never let a chance go by and We don’t know how lucky we are. Even recipes featured in the updates on occasion.

The response from the community to Ivan’s principal’s updates was affirming and overwhelmingly positive. They achieved the desired goal to provide positive communication and build effective connections with the Western Springs College community, as well as helping them through the difficult times. The community very much appreciated Ivan’s personable approach, being open and honest and “telling them how it was”.

Ivan recognises how important it is, as a leader, to maintain a positive approach and sense of optimism – ultimately an ‘I can do this’ attitude. He sees his principal’s role as being the ‘head cheerleader’. Looking after his staff – especially his middle leaders – is essential to this. He reflects that it has been tough for staff and leaders throughout the pandemic – ‘work smarter, not harder’ has been one of his mantras.

Western Springs College
Location: Western Springs, Auckland
School type: Y9-13 Co-educational State Secondary
Student roll: 1570
Principal: Ivan Davis
School website: link)
Contact details:


Tāmaki College: Principals supporting principals

Tāmaki College principal Soana Pamaka

Tāmaki College principal Soana Pamaka

Tāmaki College principal Soana Pamaka says support from her principal peers was invaluable during the pandemic.

Amidst the constant and overwhelming challenges faced throughout the pandemic, Tāmaki College principal Soana Pamaka says being able to regularly meet and share with a group of like-minded principals who were experiencing the same things as she was, provided encouragement, inspiration and strength to keep going.

Covid has hit the Tāmaki College community hard with students and their families not only affected by illness but with loss of employment and income. Sadly, it has made the vulnerable students even more vulnerable. Soana is a leader who is passionate about the students and community she serves and is relentless in doing what is needed for her students to get to a point where they are ready for learning. 

“Being part of the principal group has been a key support for our mental wellbeing and being able to cope throughout the pandemic,” says Soana.

The principal group with approximately 10 leaders (including a number of new principals) was historically formed as part of the AIMHI programme. With the programme and funding now discontinued, the principal members have continued to operate as a self-governing professional leaders’ group and are currently meeting weekly. Principals work within the same communities and share the same issues, and therefore understand each other and what is being experienced.   

“It’s a safe environment, where principals can share their stresses and challenges, and then we talk solutions,” she says. Acknowledging that the solution will not be uniform for each school, principals are able to discuss them, and then take what might work in their own school. 

Soana believes that despite receiving regular information from the Ministry of Education, the level of challenge faced by school principals during the pandemic has not been fully understood. It upsets her when statements and decisions are made by officials that are disconnected from reality and have no regard to “what that might look like on the ground”. 

She says it has been tough for leaders as they work through wanting to make the right decision for their community. “There is no script to tell you what to do and at the end of the day you just have to make a decision.”

Support for principals has to be personalised. “We say to our teachers to understand our students, and it is the same for principals; we have to understand our principals in order to support them,” she says.

There needs to be better recognition of the cost on a principal that includes stress, loss of personal time and family time. 

That’s why the tight-knit group of principals that Soana associates with has been so important. It is principals supporting other principals, and often the key message is as simple as “you’re doing a good job and you’re OK”. 

Tāmaki College
Location: Tāmaki Auckland
School type: Y9-13 Co-educational State Secondary
Approx roll: 1400
Principal: Soana Pamaka
School website: link)
Contact details:

Carmel College: Wellbeing and connection first

Carmel College principal Chris Allen

Carmel College principal Chris Allen

Student-led connection activities were important at Carmel College during Covid.

Before the pandemic had seriously impacted schools in New Zealand, Carmel College principal Chris Allen had already started to look at how the school would cope in a lockdown situation. It was quickly decided that the normal learning-at-school timetable would not work well online and therefore it was redesigned to include half the number of periods per week, with a maximum of four one-hour periods per day, punctuated with good breaks between learning sessions. 

With the underlining principle of wellbeing and connection for both students and staff, every day started with a 30-minute Atawhai time (vertical form class). This time was when students and staff came together online for connection activities, where staff touched based with students, and everyone was involved in activities that were largely student-led. The student leadership group organised online activities and workshops such as learning to juggle, art lessons, knitting, and baking demonstrations that were very well received. It was important for students to connect with each other, have fun, remain active and continue to participate as much as possible.

Student leaders also created a Carmel Connect website which provided online support for all levels of students with learning and activities. Information and resources were produced, collated, moderated and posted online, covering academic, cultural and religious education.

A significant number of other school events and activities were also provided online, including house assemblies, counselling for students, welcome and orientation meetings, as well as meet the teacher for prospective students and parents. 

With a more streamlined timetable for learning at home, students liked the longer periods of learning and the increased amount of independent learning time. Chris said what they found happening was that students were creating their own informal online learning groups to support each other during times there were no lessons. Teachers also set up additional tuition sessions as needed. 

Focusing on wellbeing was a deliberate approach taken by Chris and her leadership team as they wanted to reduce the stress and pressure on staff as much as possible, given that it was a new and difficult experience for everyone, and often citing, “we don’t have to be perfect we just have to be good enough”. Staff appreciated that the priority was on wellbeing, and with areas such as professional learning and activities often being optional.

The measure of success for the focus on connection, was to gauge virtual attendance, which remained high throughout the times of learning from home. Chris is adamant the high virtual attendance resulted from staff being active in their teaching and connecting with students, adjusting the learning tasks for the online environment to meet student needs, and importantly, the student-led engagement and connection activities.

“This helped students feel connected to the school and not sitting at home alone in their bedroom,” she says. Students continued to feel a sense of belonging and part of the Carmel College community.     

Chris is very pleased with the high level of student engagement, learning and achievement that was maintained throughout the times of online learning. What they have learnt, is that together they have been able to come up with innovative and effective solutions to problems, with many of the solutions still in use and influencing student learning at school. 

Independent student learning time has now been extended to include all Year 11–13 students, and lengthening the learning periods is under consideration. With a staff that now has increased IT skills capability, there is a greater use of digital tools for learning, including a move to provide the option for conducting meetings with parents online.  

Carmel College
Location: North Shore, Auckland
School type: Y7-13 Integrated Catholic Girls’ Secondary School
Approx roll: 800
Principal: Chris Allen
School website: link)
Contact details:

Steve and Erika would love to hear from other school leaders about their experience of navigating Covid-19. If you’d like to be involved, email or

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:43 am, 19 May 2022

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