Silver lining to Covid disruptions

Issue: Volume 99, Number 20

Posted: 3 December 2020
Reference #: 1HAFDC

Disruptions and closures due to Covid-19 have resulted in innovations and future preparedness in schools throughout Aotearoa.

He tangata first

A Year 1–13 kura in Gisborne made sure that its 176 ākonga were safe and well fed, and extra support was available for those who needed it.

“We’re a kura kaupapa Māori, so the number one thing we look at is te ira tangata – the person. Our first concern wasn’t their learning, but that they were okay at home, that they had access to food and were going to be in a safe space,” says. Maria Sheridan, tumuaki of Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ngā Uri a Maui.

The kura had been in the first tranche of Lunches in Schools and turned this into ‘Dinner at Home’ twice a week during lockdown.

“Afterwards whānau said having that one stress taken away, and knowing that other people were keeping an eye on them, made a big difference to how they felt and got through. We knew that our tamariki were sitting in homes that felt a bit better, which meant that learning could happen,” she says.

Maria has been at Ngā Uri a Maui for 18 months and is passionate about digital technology, so the kura had already begun a journey to improve digital skills and capacity. Three weeks before the lockdown, when she saw the writing was on the wall, the school contacted whānau to see who needed devices and connectivity. By the end of the first week of lockdown, all ākonga had devices to work on.

He kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) is vitally important in kura Māori. Maria says that under tikanga, Māori ensure they give respect to each other by meeting face to face when they can. Operating in a virtual environment was very different for teachers and students and the day started with a karakia live on Facebook, which brought everybody together.

Hybrid programme

It was made clear to the whole school community that ‘school as normal’ wouldn’t be happening.

“We have multiple kids in whānau. Each day the teacher would be online live with their class for one hour, so if there was only one device, there was no fighting over that. We sent out guidelines with the sort of time that we hoped they would spend in their class time; when they would need some whānau support and when not.

“We had Google Classroom set up as well. We had already started introducing our hybrid programme, combining Te Ao Māori with wānanga with matihiko (technology). There was a lot of upskilling teachers and quick learning, with us meeting in Zoom to get the best out of the time when they were home,” explains Maria.

Digital content developed during and since lockdown will continue to be useful to teachers and students at the kura.

“One of the interesting things is that there’s not a lot of stuff just sitting online for reo: other schools can just go online and find material in English. But everything we had to do, had to be in Māori, so there was a lot of work before and during lockdown, building that content and getting it out there. We had to build stuff so we stayed with who we are as Ngā Uri a Māui.

“We did a lot of our podcasts, webinar sessions, our own little kiriata [films] that we designed that the kids were going to be able to go back and reference,” says Maria.

Prepared for future disruptions

Should the country go into lockdown again, Maria says the transition will be much more natural as Google Classroom is being used throughout the kura at varying levels depending on age group; and the digital skills of staff and students are continuing to grow.

“There are help sheets for whānau. Not everybody at home is technology literate to be able to deliver what we were hoping for: they didn’t know how to operate Zoom or Google Classroom or Flipchart or all the other things that we were using. We had to design the programme and learning materials for whānau as much as students.”

Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ngā Uri a Maui is growing, with 50 Year 1 students in the now 200-student school. This poses challenges for remote learning, but Maria says they are prepared.

“If we had to deal with future disruptions across the board, we’d be way better prepared, but we have all these brand-new five-year-olds, so that would pose a totally different dilemma and difficulty if we were to go into lockdown again. The Year 1 teachers have been developing programmes since lockdown.

New iPads are on order as the kura has grown and the help sheets for whānau are being fine-tuned.

“I’m not saying that everything would be easy, but we would be much better prepared. We have our systems and processes. We know what we would run with and how we would run, so that would be much easier,” says Maria.

Connecting students with remote learning

Broadgreen Intermediate in Nelson found there was a disconnect between the paper packs of worksheets they sent home for students during lockdown and the student-centred way their students normally learn.

Initially, 30 per cent of the school’s 580 students were working on paper, with some parents preferring their children to work this way rather than take part in digital learning, says principal Pete Mitchener.

“Today we like the student to be at the centre of their learning. We like the learning to be around student inquiry or connectedness with the local curriculum so they are actively involved in their learning. What seemed to be apparent is that the paper packs were like giving them a worksheet back in time: like the old days of ‘turn to page 35 of chapter 6’.

“Students were being asked to do work which they had no connection to and we found that there seemed to be more active participation and vibrancy with the students actively engaging online compared to the paper model,” he says.

A key problem with paper-only remote teaching was pitching the learning, says Pete.

“A teacher is very good at balancing right there and then whether to extend or support the student. When you can do that on the run as you do as a teacher, it’s great. But with a sheet, you might think they are working at a certain level, it was the baseline of doing enough to get by, rather than pulling out the finer details and threads.

“During lockdown I was in and out of Google Classrooms and seeing the discussion between the teacher and student. Even then, the teacher was able to respond, ask them to share their writing, give them their next step and get the others to reflect. It’s very hard to create that environment with just a paper pack,” he says.

Ready for digital

When the school looked at the possibility of a second nationwide lockdown in August, the percentage of students requesting paper packs had reduced to 10 per cent.

“The idea was that if we went back into lockdown, the level of people on digital devices was going to be a lot higher. Initially some parents didn’t feel they quite had control of Google Classroom,
so therefore their child wouldn’t. But by August, people said,
‘We’re ready for digital now, we understand what’s involved’.

“Students who hadn’t done digital learning weren’t behind academically when they returned to school, there just was a difference in the child’s confidence around connecting with the class.

“When we came back some students had gone off on different inquiries and the other children were unaware of where the learning had gone. And, yes, the teacher was available for all the students, but the digital learning was a more relevant and current model,” explains Pete.

Potential of online platforms

When Broadgreen Intermediate reviewed the first lockdown and looked at what a second lockdown would look like, they acknowledged that initially wellbeing, mental health and family connectedness were more important than schoolwork. But they also saw that the disruption caused by Covid gave Google Classroom and similar platforms a purpose and began working towards utilising their potential.

“We made sure the teachers were doing an ongoing Google Classroom within their face-to-face classroom; the students were using Google Classroom as a tool and continuing to post work as a way to keep connectedness. Even though we had been a Google Classroom school before, it takes something like this to make people realise what we didn’t know and also how it operates in a remote environment,” says Pete.

Learning aligned

The school is now prepared to ensure that remote learning – whether online or on paper – is more closely aligned to what is going on in the classroom, says Pete.

“If we were lucky enough to have a day’s notice, we feel now that we would have the ability to grab the online learning and photocopy it off so it could be sent home with the child. The first time, they were all very much generic packs.

“Now we would have current topics and programmes for each class. Even though as an intermediate, a lot of our curriculum is in sync, there’s variability within classes and different themes and topics. We want to be able to keep students connected and on task with what they are currently doing in the classroom so that they don’t disconnect,” he says. 

Realistic expectations

Fairhaven School in Napier provides education for 76 students, aged 5–21, who have learning support needs, across one base school, a young adult transition centre, and four sites in local primary, intermediate and secondary schools.

Principal Diane Whyte says the school closure was challenging initially but the message to staff and family was to have realistic expectations.

“We looked after our staff first and foremost, knowing that if they remained resilient, our students and their whānau would be better supported. We made a hauora tree where the lead team were connected with different teachers and then the teachers with their support staff and we made sure we had up to date contact lists for each student.

“Each teacher phoned, Facebook messaged or Zoomed the parents to find out initially what would work for them. Communication was key.

“For our staff with little children, I said: ‘I’m not expecting you to be in contact with families every day, you need to look after yourself’ and because they felt they had the permission to look after themselves, that supported their resilience and I think that was a big reason why they did such a fabulous job,” says Diane.

Learning packages

With very little notice before the lockdown, learning packs were put together for each student. A core package contained paints, glitter, glue and things teachers thought would engage each student.

“The amazing thing was every staff member had their cars out and delivered them and we could do the same again. Our local supplier is brilliant: we were able to order during lockdown. They sent loads of things to our office staff’s home when school was closed: paints, slime, glitter, balloons, paper, pens pencils, feathers – all sorts of sensory things.

“We made sure there were good learning opportunities and activities parents could easily do with their kids. But it was just being available that made the difference. Because our teachers in particular, knew their families so well, they made the kind of contact that would work for each family,” explains Diane.

Teachers were upskilled so everybody could connect online,” says deputy principal Heather Rickerby.

“We worked through the holidays and did PLD with our staff through Zoom meetings on ClassDojo(external link). We managed to get nearly all of our parents signed up for that by sending them information – it was an easy way for our teachers to connect and then teachers were able to post differentiated activities for each student that parents could do with their children,” she says.

Sharing online

Most students at Fairhaven School had not previously engaged in online learning, so one staff member was tasked with scouring the internet and educational sites to find content and activities that would work for and engage students.

Deputy principal Sioned Oliver explains there were interactive stories or stories especially written for students with intellectual disabilities.

“Some were around Covid or mental health for students. There were other practical websites where parents could make play dough or slime or activities they could do at home with their children. There were websites which helped parents with coping strategies.

“Through the regular Zoom meetings, staff also shared ideas with each other about what worked with each student and that was really helpful,” says Sioned.

Keeping activities simple was the best thing to do, says Diane.

“One of the activities was for them to find four things that were red or green and take a photo and for those who could, to write about it and post it. Families had fun together, sharing the photos with their teachers, and the students enjoyed seeing their work and the teacher’s responses on ClassDojo,” says Diane.

Communication and relationships

While the remote learning for Fairhaven School’s students had to be practical and hands-on, Diane says that connecting online was also important.

“When whānau connected with Zoom, the look on the kids’ faces when they finally got to see their teacher was incredible – they were so excited. We learnt a huge amount from that and the fact that connectedness was so important. We felt really privileged as well, because we were being invited into their homes and I think our communication and relationship with whānau really grew,” says Diane.

Parents’ understanding of what their children are capable of also grew, says Heather.

“By having their young ones home so much and engaging with sensory activities, some of our parents were very surprised with some of the things our students could do. That’s been good for our teachers because they now have stronger connections to their families and we are getting a lot more feedback from parents through the digital platform,” she says.

Ready for future disruptions

Students returned to Fairhaven School at Level 2, but because many are quite vulnerable, Level 3 precautions were kept in place: social distancing, minimal contact between the satellite units and all out-of-school trips were stopped, explains Diane.

“So our therapy team started to do online therapy, which was incredible. They were Zooming into the classroom and support staff and teachers would be supporting the students to do whatever the learning or therapeutic opportunity was.

“During lockdown itself, our therapy team put together resources, videos of sensory learning and fun things for the kids so they also stayed connected,” she says.

The school is ready for any future disruptions.

“We have drafts of what each alert level will look like in our school: communications are ready to go; learning packs are ready, and we know that we could have the packs out within an hour,” says Diane.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:26 am, 3 December 2020

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