Planning and pragmatism help to manage Omicron

Issue: Volume 101, Number 3

Posted: 16 March 2022
Reference #: 1HATEB

Planning, flexibility, effective communication, and professional development and support for teachers has helped a Napier high school navigate the challenges of life with Omicron.

Head of department visual arts Amanda LeMay, with her Year 11 Art class.

Head of department visual arts Amanda LeMay, with her Year 11 Art class.

Taradale High School, with more than 1,000 students, was one of the first secondary schools in Hawke’s Bay to report a positive Covid case early in February. 

Even though the news came late on a Friday, the school’s Covid Response Team (consisting of the senior leadership team, a timetabler, principal’s PA and administration support) immediately swung into action, says principal David Oliver.

“We managed to do a bit of work in the background using the Covid Framework Tool to establish who the close contacts might be at that time. From the initial case, we identified 70 students. We identified potentially eight staff who were school contacts. 

“For the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health team, this was one of the first cases of Omicron within the secondary school context in Hawke’s Bay. So, it was really important that we were all able to work together to establish a way forward,” says David. 

Digital technologies head of department Craig Briggs walks with maths and digital technologies teacher Cherize Enslin.

Digital technologies head of department Craig Briggs walks with maths and digital technologies teacher Cherize Enslin.

Changing landscape

That Friday night, members of the response team spoke to a member of each whānau where a school contact had been identified. A hui was held with the Ministries of Education and Health teams on the Saturday, and work began to establish close and casual contacts. 

With another positive case, the school established there were 145 close contacts, which included just two teachers. At this point, it was established that one to one communication wasn’t viable, so emails were used.

John Marshall, deputy principal with oversight of health and safety, property and IT networks, says they worked closely with staff from local Ministries of Health and Education to determine which students met the criteria for being close contacts. 

“Another challenge was the fluid nature of the guidelines around the definition of close contacts. By way of example, in our initial outbreak, nine cases resulted in 189 close contacts. With the change in rules, those nine cases would now not generate any close contacts other than siblings living in the same house,” he says.

John adds that making the decision to assign one person as a point of contact for all Covid-19 cases and family close contacts had been a good one. 

“It has provided clear communication lines with families and recording of attendance, isolation periods and case numbers. Parents seem appreciative of the fact that the school is keeping in touch as they navigate their respective Covid journeys.”

David explains further, saying, “One of the key things is that it’s been a continually changing landscape as we’re all aware and I suppose one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had is not just pivoting or changing to be able to cope with the cases, but also to be able to continue to evolve our structures and frameworks as the conditions and phases have moved as well. So, you’re not just moving once, you’re moving multiple times – that in itself is an extra layer of complexity.”

Science teacher Sue Ross with her Year 10 Science class.

Science teacher Sue Ross with her Year 10 Science class.

Circuit breaker

In the next week, with more than 10 positive cases, it was decided to have a three-day circuit breaker to allow for further contact tracing and to give teachers time to plan and work on a hybrid model of teaching and learning. 

While all teachers and some students were onsite at school, the majority of students did remote learning during this time. 

The school’s community was told that on the following Monday, any student who was not established as a close contact was welcome back at school. 

The three-day circuit breaker allowed staff to plan for a range of scenarios so they could respond quickly to what was in front of them. It was decided to trial a separated model of pastoral house groups operating within separate spaces.

“We started off the Monday by isolating groups from the kura as house groups – so they would all be in a separate building and be together in vertical form groups. We had no idea of how many kids we would have back, so we really wanted to build some flexibility there. 

“We ended up with about 60 percent of the kids back on the Monday. So, that initial plan of having all the kids in form groups became problematic – there’s a tipping point with a structure like that of about 40 percent. The plan was to have that operating all day, but after period one, we’d established that the best thing to be doing was to have them back in subject classes and for the teachers to evaluate at that point what was the best step to support learning,” explains David.

Alternative timetable

The school day now starts at 9.15am with a form time so teachers can check in with how students are faring, and lessons finish at 2.15pm.  

Toni Dunstan, a deputy principal with oversight for timetabling, HR and operational planning, says that some thought was put into timetable planning last year using the experiences from previous lockdowns. 

“That worked well in that setting because each family situation was different and everyone was in lockdown. We knew that wouldn’t work this time, so, instead of having five periods a day, we came up with a three period a day model.

“We wanted a structure that would be able to flex with whatever was in front of us. So when the call was made to go to the three days of online learning, we dropped in that timetable,” she explains.

With 25–35 percent of learning at home, the three period a day model has been continued so that staff can prepare online resources. 

“I think they’re really rising to it – they’re doing a lot of work around that, but appreciative of the time that we’ve built in,” says Toni.

David hopes this will be a short term model of weeks, rather than months, but he says it provides  a more flexible structure to be able to respond to changing student and staff numbers. 

“We start with that model and at the end of that third period, the kids have the opportunity to stay at school and carry on with their on-site work, or to do that at home. But it allows us to maintain a consistent structure moving forward that as staff numbers drop, we’re able to carry on.

“We don’t want to be in a position to have to contemplate not being able to run the school because we don’t have enough staff to run it and this gives us the flexibility to be able to run with fewer staff,” he says.

Taradale High School’s senior leadership team: Al Bain, John Marshall, David Oliver (principal), Toni Dunstan, and Helen Fouhy.

Taradale High School’s senior leadership team: Al Bain, John Marshall, David Oliver (principal), Toni Dunstan, and Helen Fouhy.

Professional learning and teacher support

Deputy principal Helen Fouhy has oversight for teaching and learning and says that before the 2020 lockdown, a huge effort was put into professional learning development (PLD) for online learning.

“It wasn’t an if, it was a when!” she says. 

“With the staff requirement to use online learning, it certainly stepped up enormously. But we knew things were going to be different this year, particularly once we had looked at an alternative timetable. 

“We had 16 new staff at the beginning of this year, including some first year teachers. We had people who had never done online learning, and we had people who had come from Google Classroom – we’re a Microsoft school and we like everyone to use Microsoft apps and Teams video sessions,” says Helen.

Teacher-only days at the start of the year focused on e-learning. Teachers worked through a checklist of  ‘I need to be able to do this for hybrid learning’ and there are ‘How to’ documents for a range of requirements.

“All teachers work together in little support hubs around the school, so the expertise is all around the school. Everybody has a buddy or is in a small group, so there’s plenty of support, plus the specialist classroom teacher has run lots of sessions as well as targeting specific skills.

“Even a couple of weeks before we went into our alternative programme, we basically stripped our PLD programme and replaced it with online prep. Supporting staff to be comfortable in the delivery of it has been really important,” says Helen.

Taradale High School staff used to meet three times a week, but now meet every morning to check in and support each other.

“We are running that three period timetable so we’re giving them enough flexibility to be able to do what they’re expected to do because it’s huge! You’re asking staff to respond to what they see in front of them which can change from day to day, from period to period. 

“We support staff to be able to teach face to face if they need to, and support them to be able to work collaboratively within their departments to put resources together so they can do that online teaching should they need to,” says David.

Year 13 students studying in the library.

Year 13 students studying in the library.

Wellbeing checks

Deputy principal Al Bain has oversight for the pastoral system and says a lot of work is being done to reassure anxious students and parents, with form time rescheduled to the start of the school day to check in on students’ wellbeing. He says that student leaders have shown a lot of leadership and initiative, providing some resources on  the school’s Instagram account such as tips for wellbeing and working online.

“We have a number of students who aren’t coming still because their parents are nervous and keeping them at home and some will be close contacts as well. Deans are in contact with some of those because we’re trying to reassure parents that it’s okay to come back to school with the measures we’ve got in place. The ones we’re not hearing from, our deans are phoning, or we’re emailing and we’re getting a lot of quite useful information from that,” he says.

It’s hoped a survey will provide useful feedback on the hybrid learning experience, and also alert staff if any students need more support.

“We’re checking in to see if they want a follow up from a member of the pastoral team because they’re not feeling that flash. We did that last year with our full lockdown – we’re just going to adapt it now because we’ve changed to a combination of online learning and our three period timetable – we just need to check that’s working for the kids,” says Al.

When the first positive Covid case was announced, Taradale High School left only its top teams in the local sports competitions and instigated a voluntary intra-school competition, which is run by the sports department daily between 8am and 9.15am and 2.15pm and 4.35pm to encourage engagement, wellbeing and students staying active.

“At the beginning a lot of our teams were decimated, but there are tonnes of opportunities each day. Some mornings it’s targeted at year levels and some mornings it’s targeted activities where kids can turn up with a group of friends, or be put in a team to try some activities,” explains Helen.

Do what you can

David believes that each school’s context  and approach will be different and it’s a challenge ensuring that everybody’s needs are met. 

“We made the decision that because of our numbers and what we had done already, it was going to create more problems than it was going to solve by trying to isolate and put staff and students in bubbles. We’re also conscious that once they leave the kura, they are all mixing on their way out the door. It’s a balance – you’re trying to ensure that staff are connected with each other and that tautoko is there for them. 

“You have to be sensible and pragmatic, taking recommended hygiene steps – masks, hand washing, distancing as much as possible – and at the same time we’re a school community, a big whānau, and you have to ensure that you maintain the culture and the connection,” says David.

Ākonga at Taradale High School are adjusting to an Omicron environment, and a hybrid learning experience.

Ākonga at Taradale High School are adjusting to an Omicron environment, and a hybrid learning experience.

He says it’s important to keep a sense of perspective around timeframes and navigate the ever changing situation with consistency and care for the school community.

“The key message we’re trying to give is ‘do what you can, when you can, if you can’. Let’s not get too bent out of shape around trying to ensure we’re doing five periods face to face every day for the next short period of time. We can support learning using face to face and online.

“If we look at where we’re going here, the likelihood is that it won’t be long that we will have staff numbers impacted. So rather than trying to do what we have always done, it’s trying to be flexible so that we are being proactive, rather than reactive. We can see that wave – I don’t want to be doing something when it hits the beach. I want to be doing something about it now,” he concludes.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 11:30 AM, 16 March 2022

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