Tarawera High School

Helen Tuhoro
Tarawera High School principal Helen Tuhoro

Immediately prior to the first lockdown in 2020, Tarawera High School and its community was dealing with the death of one of their students. It was a very difficult time for everyone says Principal Helen Tuhoro, and made even more difficult when in level 4 lockdown, they did not have direct access to grieving students and staff. They did their best to provide wellbeing checks and support, but were unfortunately let down by some external organisations. 

A significant challenge that students faced in lockdown was the lack of connectivity and therefore not having access to online learning. Realising that this was not going to be solved quickly, Helen says, “the school community rallied together” and produced their own resource packs and distributed them to students. 

Whānau would communicate via the school Facebook page and be able to request specific learning resources for their children. After gaining special consent for some staff to access the campus, learning packs were compiled and available for collection by whānau using a drive-through system.    

Helen says that dealing with the negative effects of her students being locked down became a significant focus. “Lockdown for many of the students was removing their safe place,” she says.

Serious safety concerns were a reality for many of the students during lockdown. “For some of our students to be kept at home with their families for two months was a safety issue, with domestic violence and drug use, often methamphetamine.” Referrals were made for police to do a number of welfare checks to make sure students were okay. 

When school reopened after lockdown, there was a concerted effort to address the health and wellbeing of students and staff. “There were activities that were fun, with lots of games and we held mini parties.”

To help senior students reengage with their learning, Block Week was introduced, which resulted in the normal timetable being replaced with students being able to explore a topic of interest. A group of teachers would collaborate with students to design and support an integrated learning programme, that would meet curriculum learning objectives and enable the students to achieve at least 12 NCEA credits. Topics of interest included environmental issues, the arts and hospitality. Where possible the community was involved to restore a connection but also to let them know that, “school was back and students were learning, they are alright and don’t have Covid.”

In response to the continuing impact of Covid on the Kawerau community, a group involving the local schools, DHB, Police, and Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau Hauora, was established to decide on the best way to meet the needs of the community. Due to the low vaccination rates in the community, the Tarawera High School Board allowed the DHB to operate a vaccination centre on campus at the end of the school day.

This decision proved to be contentious and attracted opposition from some members of the public. Helen recounts the time when a group of vocal protestors demonstrated outside the school gates and on one occasion, hit the windows of the special learning needs van (which had upset students inside), with their placards as it was leaving the school campus. She is angry and upset that there were people from outside the Kawerau community who made a special effort to target the school and subsequently traumatise students.

Navigating the challenges of Omicron for Helen as the principal, has largely been managing levels of fear and anxiety. Student absences were often “not because of sickness but because whānau did not want their mokos/children bringing Covid home from school and giving it to them”. Because of these student absences, classes were combined easily in response to ongoing staff absences.

Helen speaks highly of her staff for their extra effort in covering classes, and working with collapsed and shared classes. Having a large number of staff absent, without having any relievers to call upon, is a daily problem to overcome. “It’s the stress levels and anxiety from the workload that has been on our teachers, they are exhausted…and so am I.” 

Although she is aware that some first-time principals need additional support and therefore the recent monetary payment to their school would have been welcomed, Helen strongly believes that even experienced principals have also had it tough and should benefit from the same support. 

Living and working in the community which has its own challenges, Helen sees the consequences of the actions taken to respond to the pandemic, have had a greater impact than the consequences of the actual illness. Complying with the staff vaccination mandate was upsetting, and she is deeply saddened “for the trauma that we as an education body caused to those people and their families”. Good teachers lost their jobs, and for some the ability to work in New Zealand due to an invalid working visa.

Helen does acknowledge that it would have been difficult for the authorities to make the decision, but feels that there was a lack of “real and actual people part in the scenario”. She adds, “Living in a small town, I still had to face that teacher in the supermarket the next day, while her children were still students at school. Her children could go to school but she couldn’t, how crazy was that?”

For Helen and her school, it has been tough navigating the environment created by the pandemic. She is clear though that her people will always come first, and will serve them in the best way possible.

About the school

Tarawera High School



School type

Y7-13 Co-educational State Secondary

Approximate roll



Helen Tuhoro

School website


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