Covid has brought a range of challenges for area schools, says Hurunui College principal Stephen Beck, particularly around maintaining teaching and learning programmes and getting students back to school after lockdowns.
The pandemic has been a situation that principals as leaders could not have predicted or have perceived the impact, says Stephen Beck, principal of Hurunui College. “It has put another whole layer of compliance, time, effort and commitment from leaders, above and beyond everything else that continues to happen in a school,” he says. For Stephen, the biggest challenge has been trying to keep the long-term vision and strategic planning at the forefront, while still having to manage Covid and keep the school open.
Stephen says that the pandemic has significantly impacted student learning, achievement and even school culture. The ongoing disruption over the last two years has for many students resulted in decreased attendance, some not returning to the school and being lost to the system or leaving school altogether before they would have ordinarily done so. While rebuilding school culture was not initially a focus in the early stages of the pandemic, it certainly is now. Not being able to physically come together, meant that everyone missed out on the opportunities to come together as a school, connect with each other and further develop the school culture.
Prior to the pandemic, Hurunui College made the decision to move their digital network into the cloud, meaning that staff and students were already familiar with operating in that environment. They had also previously committed to providing one to one digital devices for year 11-13 students and then issuing Chromebooks to other students as needed. This helped prepare everyone for learning from home during the pandemic. Unfortunately, not every family had access to stable and uncapped internet from home - especially if they were on a satellite-based connection due to their remote location or relying on cell phone data.
With Covid directly affecting the community, maintaining teaching and learning programmes has increased in complexity, especially when significant numbers of staff have been absent due to sickness. Stephen doesn’t believe that ‘hybrid’ delivery of learning is sustainable and effective long term for student learning. “What it has done is create a perception that parents can just keep their child at home and do learning from home,” he says.
However, a number of students have utilised learning from home when it was necessary to be part of a local bubble. An example of this was when a local viticulture business made the decision to form a large bubble with all those involved with the harvest – including the children of workers. It was deemed that children attending school posed an unacceptable risk of bringing Covid home, thus requiring those involved with the harvest to isolate, which would have had serious economic implications for the business and region. Children therefore remained in the bubble and continued with their learning from home and made the best of the situation. “It was nice to be able to support our local businesses and their families during this time.”
As the President of the New Zealand Area Schools’ Association, Stephen has a good understanding of the impact that the pandemic is having on area schools throughout the country. In short, the pandemic has compounded the unique challenges that area schools already face but also highlighted the adaptability within area schools and their ability to react quickly and be responsive to their community’s needs.
Keeping year 12 and 13 students enrolled at their local area school can be a challenge in normal circumstances, let alone when the rural labour market is now enticing students to leave school before they would ordinarily have done so. In some rural communities there are increased numbers of students moving into home-schooling – especially in those communities that have traditionally attracted families who live an alternative or nonconformist lifestyle.
Any government policy decisions, rules and regulations, or situations in the community that makes it less attractive to live and work in a rural setting, will have a major effect on an area school’s ability to attract staff. Unfortunately, there is an increasing sense of apprehension for the process of employing teachers, especially secondary, in the near future – and definitely for those schools in areas that are hard to staff. However, it is important to highlight the benefits of living and teaching in our rural communities and the lifestyle and career opportunities that our area schools provide for both primary and secondary trained teachers. Once teachers enter the area school system they seldom leave.
The situation regarding the vaccination mandate for employees of schools, has had a damaging effect on some area school communities. Stephen says, “Because area schools are central and very visible to the community, everyone knows everyone, and it becomes quite personal”. When staff in schools lost their jobs due to the mandate, it directly impacted relationships and in some cases morale within communities.
Because of the potential for isolation within area schools, being well connected to other like-minded professionals has been a priority for Stephen and has encouraged this with principal colleagues. “Being able to find out what other schools are doing and sharing your frustration and successes with others who are in a similar context is really valuable.”
About the school
Hawarden, North Canterbury
Y0-13 Co-educational State Area School