Wakatipu High School

Wakatipu High School principal Steve Hall and deputy principal Lee Hiestand
Wakatipu High School principal Steve Hall and deputy principal Lee Hiestand

“It was as if an open tap was swiftly turned off,” is how Steve Hall, principal of Wakatipu High School describes the immediate and devastating effect that the pandemic had on the resort town of Queenstown and the school community. “Literally the town went from being vibrant and thriving, to businesses closing overnight and not needing workers or staff anymore.” As a direct consequence, there was a significant number of migrant workers and their children (who attended the only secondary school in town) needing to urgently depart Queenstown and leave the country before restrictions on travel prevented them from doing so. 

In the early days of the first lockdown, the school became a very important conduit for information, not just related to students and their learning, but also information regarding the pandemic itself, support measures that were available and contact details for external agencies. This included passing on community information for those who required food, support for the loss of businesses and income, repatriation flights and even where to get firewood, says deputy principal Lee Hiestand.

“There was a much bigger picture than what was just happening for the school,” says Steve, “There was what was happening in this community that we all live in, and it was absolutely imperative that we play our part.” For this reason the school wanted to make sure that they kept a sense of normality and routine for students and their families. During lockdowns the school programme for each week day consisted of three classes in the morning and independent student learning time in the afternoon. This was punctuated with Ako support sessions with staff connecting with students to see how they were faring.

Feedback from the community was positive because they knew what was expected of their child and the routine helped maintain structure and consistency at home amidst the uncertainty and difficulties that families were facing.

The school was very fortunate to have Lee and other senior leaders who would research what was happening internationally, with the view to anticipate what might then occur in New Zealand. Their impressive analytical skills, coupled with their ability to model various scenarios and recommend effective courses of action, really helped the school in its readiness and response to the constant changes, shares Steve. 

Teaching and learning at Wakatipu High School had already been using a digital environment and school-wide BYOD programme. This helped the shift to fully online or hybrid learning for both students and staff to be relatively seamless. “We already had an accurate list of those students that didn’t have a device or suitable connectivity at home, and so we just issued them with whatever they needed,” says Lee.

With the school campus now open for student learning, managing staff absences has been achievable due to a reasonable teacher relief pool, as well as being more flexible with staff and allowing them to work from home in certain situations.

Digital and online services have been further developed to now include opportunities for online parent student conferences, online staff meetings, and streaming of prize givings and celebration events. Steve is quick to share developments and the possibilities that have been realised, but wants to make sure that a good balance is struck and the importance of being together and relating in person is maintained. “Events with large numbers of people were very much missed, and therefore getting back to having sports and cultural activities etc. was really important for student health and well-being.”

Despite the fact that the local economy is beginning to open up and travel restrictions have been eased, “there are still a lot of families whose businesses are still closed, or their work has changed or they don’t have any work,” says Steve, “which does have a flow on effect to the students.”

Having to deal concurrently with the construction of significant building extensions over the last two years has also provided some challenges – however they have now moved into the new buildings, with staff and students no longer having to play musical prefabs. 

As a leader, Steve says that he found navigating the pandemic was a significant challenge. “There were periods when it was exhausting, exasperating and times when you weren’t sure what was going to happen, but for me there was certainly a sense of responsibility as a leader that we had a part to play in our community.”

He deeply believes in the moral imperative of his role as a leader and educator. He recalls saying to staff that “there are people in the community whose livelihoods are in jeopardy and that as a school - even though it is hard, we have to keep going”. This is what Steve and his team have certainly done, and have played their part in their community. 


About the school

Wakatipu High School



School type

Y9-13 Co-educational State Secondary School

Approximate roll



Steve Hall

School website

WHS - Wakatipu High School, Queenstown New Zealand

Contact details