As Erin Cairns principal of Ruru Specialist School reflects on the impact the pandemic has had on her school, she recalls that it was teamwork and collaboration between everyone that kept their community well-connected and safe.
“It has been a really challenging time and it has been the huge teamwork between staff and our families that has made the difference,” says Erin.
The school operates across seven facilities, with a dedicated team of teaching, support and specialist staff who educate 95 students. “We have some of the most vulnerable students in the community, so we have had to be extra cautious.” With many anxious parents and whānau, the school became their source of ongoing support and strength. Erin says that during the lockdowns, many of the external agencies that were previously providing support for students in their homes, were unfortunately unable to do so, and therefore the online learning school provided became a more significant part of students’ lives at home.
Erin is delighted that the previously adopted use of Seesaw (an online interactive learning platform) became an integral part of connecting for staff, families, and engaging students with their learning. The use of this digital platform has continued to be developed over the pandemic and now includes a wellbeing focus. The students are also taking more control of their online learning environment and are adept at zooming their peers if they are unable to be at school for whatever reason.
The experiences that staff have had over the last two years “have increased our digital capability significantly”, says Erin. Staff who already had good digital skills supported those staff who didn’t. “The learning curve has been steep for some staff who lacked confidence, and are now very competent…so there’s been huge benefits from it, as we may not have gone down that track so readily.”
Greater access to online professional development opportunities for staff has been a positive benefit, says Erin, although she adds that “it’s not as good as in person but it means that professional learning can occur”.
Support from the Local and Regional Primary Principals’ Groups and Specialist Education Principals’ Association (SEPPANZ) has been invaluable throughout the pandemic. Erin is also very appreciative of the regular bulletins that were received from the Secretary of Education, Iona Holsted. “They were what kept us well informed and ensured continued collaboration.” Similarly, the online meetings that were held by the regional Ministry of Education office provided good support for principals.
Moving forward, Erin sees that it could take a long time for life to return to normal. “I think it’s made us all realise that life is more unpredictable than we think it is’. With many students having previously been involved in life and work experience in the community, local businesses are only now beginning to reconsider offering these opportunities.
“All staff have been involved in a process of reflection regarding what has been done, what has worked well or not, and what should be continued.” She sees a real fatigue across staff and realises “it is going to take time for people to build up their resilience again”. Even very long serving staff talk about never having experienced such an intense period of time with their work, and therefore the major focus for the school this year is the hauora of staff and students.
As the leader of her school community Erin is truly gracious and humble in her attitude. Zooming into homes so frequently gave Erin and her team an insight into the home lives of their students. She acknowledges it as a real privilege to be so closely involved with the development and wellbeing/hauora of the students and their families/whānau.
Erin views that one of her roles as the principal is to “be that support person for everyone else”, which has not been unnoticed by the Board, staff, students and families/whānau, when they recently acknowledged their leader’s commitment to them and how special she is to them all. True to form, Erin still talks about the teamwork and collaboration among everyone as the paramount reason that the school remains such a positive place of learning.
About the school
Ruru Specialist School
5 sites across Invercargill
Specialist School, Students aged 5-21