Ormiston Primary was one of the first schools in the country to grapple with Covid-19.
New way of thinking and working
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 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.”
Working with others
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.
Keeping the community informed
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 per cent on engagement and every decision was made through three lenses: How would it impact learners and learning; how would it impact staff; and how would it impact families?
Moving from online to a hybrid programme
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 one, 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.
Changes at Ormiston
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 1200 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 student 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 changed suddenly.
He says the experience has been rewarding in many ways. The school has managed to stay open throughout Term One. Every day has been a good day. And the community is fully supportive and growing stronger together.