Papatoetoe and the pandemic

Issue: Volume 100, Number 4

Posted: 8 April 2021
Reference #: 1HAJaM

When Papatoetoe High School emerged at the centre of a Covid-19 outbreak, its student leaders played a key role in engaging the school community around getting tested, learning from home, and staying safe.

It’s been roughly four weeks since life at Papatoetoe High School returned to relative normality following the Valentine’s Day Covid-19 outbreak at the epicentre of which the school found itself.

Judging by the volume of laughter and chatter from the young people as they make their way between classes, it’s evident they are pleased to be back at school.

“A large number of our students are extroverts,” says associate principal Barry Williams. “They love each other’s company.”

Staff knew from previous lockdowns that there was likely to be an initial spike of enthusiasm for online learning, but that the novelty of Zoom meetings and learning from home was likely to wear off.

But this time the challenge wasn’t just about getting engagement around online learning –the South Auckland secondary school had a much bigger role to play: supporting their 1400 students and their families to get tested for Covid-19.

At the Covid epicentre

The school year had barely begun when news reached the senior leadership team that they were at the heart of the latest Covid outbreak. Barry recalls hearing the news.

“We got the notification that not only are we going into lockdown – but it’s us! Everyone’s going to be looking at us. We’re ground zero.”

The Auckland Regional Public Health Service team supported the school to get everyone tested as quickly as possible.

Getting the word out to the community was the immediate challenge, says Barry. They took a variety of approaches, from messages on local radio stations right down to door-knocking in an effort to target everyone.

But Barry says one of their most effective strategies was handing communication over to the student leaders.

“If you ask someone my age what’s the best way to communicate with students, outside of the regular forms of communication, I’m not thinking the same way they are. Rhonda and Flo realised they needed to think of another way to get to the wider body of students.”

‘Do your job – get a swab’

Year 13 students Rhonda Nguyen and Flo Akauola are head girl and head boy of Papatoetoe High School, and part of a group of 10 student leaders.

Without warning, they found themselves in the glare of the media spotlight as they represented the student body.

“I never thought I would be on the news, and especially for Covid as well,” says Rhonda.

“But it was an experience to show that our school is just like any other school. It could happen to anyone.”

Barry says the student leaders handled it like pros, especially considering they hadn’t yet gone on their annual student leadership camp, where communication skills are a key focus.

“It was a baptism of fire for them in front of the cameras. We hadn’t done any practice or role-playing that we would have done at camp. This was a Dr Ashley Bloomfield moment.”

But it was the student leaders’ communication through social media that had the greatest impact on the student body.

“We made videos making sure people got Covid tests – that was a big one, that was the priority,” says Rhonda.

They came up with the slogan, ‘Do your job, get a swab’, and this became a pivot point of their campaign. The videos included some serious messages around getting tested, with some of the student leaders getting tested on camera, but humour was important too, says Rhonda.

“We managed to get the message across in a way that students would want to watch it, and remember it.”

As a result, the students rallied. Huge numbers got tested immediately – many at the school itself – along with their family members.

Online learning engagement

Another focus of the videos was to encourage students to engage with their online learning.

“We all have different home environments and I guess not everyone has a great environment for learning at home,” says Rhonda.

With this comes some anxiety around the impact of online learning on NCEA, she says. While Rhonda has already achieved NCEA Level 3 with Excellence, she is mindful that many students are anxious about NCEA.

“What happens this year has an impact on what happens with getting into university.”

She says the teachers have been really supportive.

Barry confirms the school is discussing recognition credits with NZQA.

“We’ve had more time in lockdown than any other school in New Zealand this year.”

Wellbeing a strong focus

Alongside any conversations around Covid testing and online learning was a strong focus on student and staff wellbeing.

“To get the best out of these young people, we need the grown-ups around the campus to be firing on all cylinders as well,” says Barry.

The school surveyed its 90 teaching staff and 40 support staff after the second lockdown.

“We learned that our staff are superheroes – some are teaching five periods a day online and they might have three young children at home who are clambering all over them, and their partner might have had to go to work.

“So, we’re not making unnecessary demands on our staff. We’re prioritising all the time,” he says.

Student wellbeing remains a key priority.

“During the lockdown we asked form teachers to contact every student in their form class just to check on their wellbeing. Our form teachers are not the ones who are going to be able to solve any anxiety issues, but they are well placed to refer them to the counsellors and deans. We’ve got a great student support team.”

Lessons learned

They’ve learned a lot from the experience, says Barry. And as they have reflected on their response to the situation, they agree there are things they would do differently.

“How do we get to absolutely everyone? Were there other ways of communication that we didn’t think of?” says Barry.

He says these are some of the things they’re thinking about as they unpack how they responded to the Covid outbreak.

Members of the senior leadership team are looking closely at the impact on their respective portfolios, including wellbeing, attendance, NCEA and assessment.

They’re keen to share what they’ve learned with other schools. The leadership team is set to present at an upcoming deputy principal conference. And they’ve prepared a ‘principals’ pack’ which they hope other school leaders will find useful.

After all, we’re not out of the Covid woods yet.

“There is a sense of inevitability –- this might happen again. And if it does, the schools are all here to support each other. It’s not a competition. The DNA between schools is almost identical,” says Barry.

Community spirit

One area that is unique to Papatoetoe High School is its community, the people who give it character, depth and diversity. 

“We’re passionate about this community here,” says Barry.

“We’re acutely aware that everyday people give over their children to us for five hours, and it is a responsibility that we understand, so we do our very best for them.

“It’s complex. Every day is different. Some days are great days. Some are less fruitful. But we come back because we want to make a difference in this community and more than anyone, our principal Vaughan Couillault, carries that on his sleeve. Vaughan wanted to let his community know ‘it’s okay, we’ve got this – jump on board!’” he says.

Vaughan has a long history with the community; he was a former student and teacher at Papatoetoe High School and is proud to now be principal of the school.

Barry says the recent Covid situation gave them an opportunity to engage deeply with their community.

“We wanted to show this community that we don’t just come to work here, we come to give these kids the very best chance in life that we can.”

And the aroha has been reflected right back. Barry says they’ve had overwhelming support from their parents and whānau, as well as from other schools and local organisations.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Rhonda.

“I guess coming out of this, I feel like everybody really came together and to see that is really inspiring and heart-warming. If we get another outbreak, we will do this together.”

View the video made by the Papatoetoe High School student leaders. 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:30 am, 8 April 2021

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