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Senior students return to schools – Expert Reaction

The Ministry of Education will allow Auckland secondary schools to open their doors for senior students under Alert Level 3.

Principals will now have the option of allowing Year 12 and 13 students back to school early for face-to-face learning during Alert Level 3, Ministry of Education head Iona Holsted told schools in a bulletin on Monday evening.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the decision. 

Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Public Health, University of Otago,  Wellington, comments:

“There’s still frustratingly little evidence about how easily COVID-19 spreads among students in a school setting. That’s because other countries have experienced widespread outbreaks but schools have generally been closed, either because of the pandemic or because of Northern Hemisphere summer holidays. We simply don’t have enough observational data yet.

“The COVID-19 risk for school-age children may be lower than for adults, but it isn’t zero. We’ve seen several instances of cases in New Zealand. And although children seem to have a milder disease course, evidence is starting to come through about long-term complications (‘long covid’) that can have a profound impact on young people’s lives. There’s also a question of whether students without symptoms might pass on an infection to a more vulnerable adult. Again, it’s uncertain but the indications are that older teenagers might have similar transmission patterns to adults.

“The lack of clear evidence about risk emphasises the value of being very cautious while there’s active community transmission, especially as there are lots of unanswered questions about how the Auckland outbreak started and spread. Although no-one wants to keep senior students off school unnecessarily, schools are places where a lot of social mixing happens every day. There are strong reasons to keep all transmission risk to an absolute minimum until there’s certainty that the outbreak is being controlled.

“It’s also surprising that the Government is still lukewarm about mask wearing in schools, while strongly promoting other hygiene measures. It’s hard to picture why it would be better for a potentially infectious person to cough into their elbow (spreading virus into the air and onto their clothes) instead of stopping the virus at source with a mask.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury, comments:

“The international evidence is that teenage school children can spread the virus just as easily as adults can. There have been several documented examples of outbreaks in schools around the world. We know that community transmission is happening in Auckland at the present time. This means a return to the classroom at Level 3 will need to be managed very carefully to ensure this does not lead to another cluster, which will only prolong the disruption for Auckland students.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am partly funded by MBIE for research on mathematical modelling of COVID-19.”

Associate Professor Melinda Webber (Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu), Te Puna Wānanga/School of Māori and Indigenous Education, University of Auckland, comments:

“Authentic whānau and school relationships are a crucial lever in the educational wellbeing of students – especially Māori and Pasifika students. Genuine whānau involvement in school decision making regarding their children’s education is critical because students learn more and succeed at higher levels when home, school, and community work together to support students’ learning and development. Have these schools even asked whānau what they would like to happen? Or are they making universal decisions that are school-centric rather than student centric? Parents and whānau should always be involved in conversations about their children and their learning.

“Schools might also want to invest some time and energy in educating parents on the best ways to help their children with school work at home. I have noticed that schools have placed a strong emphasis on telling students what they should be doing during lockdown – but perhaps parents would also like support and advice about how they can best help the children to learn. Research shows that the best ways to achieve good homework routines are by 1) making homework a priority by setting aside a certain time each week-day for working together on learning, 2) by helping them develop good study, note-taking and revision habits (even if it’s just a conversation asking your child to tell you what they are learning about and why it is important).

“No one learns well when they are under psychological and academic stress. For secondary school students, I would suggest that families establish a simple study schedule with their children that sets work in a variety of subjects – and regular rest, food and drink breaks. This is not the time for parents to insist on long periods of study – it’s a pandemic. We need to also focus on staying healthy, warm and mentally and spiritually well.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Jude MacArthur, Senior Lecturer, School of Critical Studies in Education, University of Auckland, comments:

“The proposal that Year 12 and 13 students to return to school for face-to-face learning under alert level 3 in Auckland is a reminder of the need to start planning for further uncertainty with respect to ‘levels’, and to start thinking flexibly about what support for all students at school could look like at levels 1, 1.5, 2, 3 and 4. This includes giving some careful thought to the children and young people with disabilities in our school communities who need particular support to belong and learn well at school. They and their families and whānau are in wide-ranging circumstances, their experiences are heterogeneous, and they have different resources at their disposal. Their schools also vary when it comes to resources and supports, their ability to provide for distance learning and teaching, and their commitment to all students. Students themselves may find it difficult to understand the changes in routine that come with learning at home, parents and caregivers may struggle as they try to explain what is happening, trying to be both parent and teacher in challenging times.

“Remembering every student and being alert to their circumstances is a priority at the moment.  Schools can be very good at doing this, but the wider education system needs to be flexible and ensure teachers and schools have the resources, knowledge and professional supports they need to reach out to children with disabilities and their families in their communities when we all ‘stay home’. Teachers and other professionals will probably need time to figure out how they can work together most effectively so that families feel recognised and well-supported. Professor Missy Morton at the University of Auckland has also highlighted how important it is for families to have accessible resources in a variety of formats that will help children understand what is going on and why, and help parents and whānau to keep up with their child’s learning. Some families are frightened by the uncertainties. That’s a reminder to those of us working in education to be creative and flexible in our thinking so that advice and supports are provided in ways that allow parents to be parents.”

No conflict of interest

Professor Emerita Niki Davis, University of Canterbury Child Well-being Research Institute, Te Kāhui Pā Harakeke, comments:

“Auckland school principals are now being given the option of allowing Year 12 and 13 students back to school early for face-to-face learning during Alert Level 3. The Level 3 reinstatement of remote learning is likely to be stressing these students more than those who are younger, due to the pressure of examinations in the final two years of schooling. This stress is likely to be felt disproportionately by those who live in crowded homes, especially homes with young children and/or poor access to online learning. Therefore this option is both reasonable and equitable.

“The Greater Christchurch Schools’ Network survey of students, parents and staff in over 100 Christchurch schools provides evidence of the impact of the quality of the learning environment at home. The digital divide was evident during remote learning; responses from students with a device connected to the internet prior to lockdown felt that they progressed more when compared to responses from those without. While many students enjoyed the autonomy of remote learning, those in less favourable conditions were more likely to be distracted and that results in reduced educational outcomes.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am a member of the GCSN Board and provided advice on this research.”

Dr Terry (Theresa) Fleming, Senior Lecturer in Population Health,  co-leader Youth19 Rangatahi Smart Survey, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Covid-19 and the return to school will affect different young people in different ways. For some it will be a great relief, for others it will be very stressful and worrying.
There is no one way that individuals respond to crisis and change. It is OK to feel relieved or to feel stressed, overwhelmed or bad about this. Negative feelings are part of life and part of challenging times like this.

“Schools, families and young people can support those who are having a difficult time by being calm themselves, acknowledging that it is OK to be stressed and worried. Small everyday supports like spending time with young people one to one or in small groups, listening, seeking young people’s ideas about how to address the problems and by allowing some time are important. A key thing we can all do is supporting some fun and positive activities, just connecting and having fun together has real value.

“Where the stress is overwhelming or doesn’t go away over time check out supports via School Counsellors, Youthline, 1737, online advice such as, tools such as or the or talk with your health professional.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am a co-developer of SPARX computerised therapy but this is entirely not for profit in NZ (the IP is owned by Uniservices at the University of Auckland and developers can benefit from any offshore profits from licensing or sales of it).”

Dr Hiran Thabrew, Child Psychiatrist and Paediatrician, University of Auckland and Auckland District Health Board, comments:

“As students return to school under Alert Level 3, it is likely that they will continue to experience the consequences of months of disruption to regular routines, family functioning and social relationships. During the initial phases of lockdown, due to the speed and severity of restrictions, many would have experienced increased levels of anxiety, followed by boredom, frustration and reduced interaction with wider family and peers. Despite the relief of returning to previous routines at school, students will face the challenge of readjusting to the school environment. Many, especially those with pre-existing health issues, will also have to manage reality-based and media-amplified concerns about their health. The cumulative effects of personal stress, family stress and wider societal changes are likely to be dependent on personal characteristics, immediate circumstances and socio-economic factors. The true costs and opportunities of this unusual year are unlikely to be fully understood for quite some time.

“In the meantime, educational staff, including teachers, school nurses, school counsellors and others are well positioned to support the mental health and wellbeing of students following their return to school. The following are some ways in which they may do so:

  • Expect a variety of reactions: Just as for adults, life at Alert Level 3 is likely to result in different reactions for different students. While some will be thrilled to spend time with their friends, others will be dreading going back to regular classes at school, some will be dying to get back to sports, and others will be anxious about catching COVID-19. Students should know that it is okay to feel however they do, but that it is important to manage these feelings so that they can achieve the things they need to do.
  • Identify students who are not coping early: Students may show different signs of struggling, depending on their age and developmental stage. Adolescents may act out in different ways, for example using substances, or they may internalise their stress and experience symptoms of anxiety or low mood. Being alert about the mental health of students during the next few months would be wise.
  • Educators should look after their own health:  Educators will no doubt be trying to balance the multiple needs of their students and their own families.  In addition to re-organising classes and the school environment, they may experience worries about catching the virus themselves and/or passing it on to vulnerable family members. Educators should be supported to access necessary help so that they can be optimally available to students and get through the coming months together.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Bronwyn Wood, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“One of the deep cruelties of Covid-19 is that the means of contamination is social interaction – and therefore the solution is social isolation. This reminds us that whilst this is pandemic is a medical disaster – it is first and foremost a social disaster (Connell, 2020):

This is a social disaster at the deepest level. Human social contacts are precisely the coronavirus’s means of population growth.

“Where in other disasters (war, famine, earthquakes etc), people draw together to gain comfort and solidarity from human closeness, in this pandemic, people pull apart. Vigilance, surveillance and suspicion of the ‘contaminated other’ become caught up in daily practices of living, moving and (not) interacting.

“Young people and their responses have gained attention for conflicting reasons during this current social disaster. On one hand, they are critiqued for contributing to the pandemic through maintaining social interaction and indeed, partying, and they are often portrayed as selfish and hedonistic in their response. Aligned with this narrative they are also considered to be lacking in resilience, and needing a hug as part of a Millennial or ‘snowflake’ generation who haven’t experienced hard times.

“On the other, they are heralded as Covid saviours, and celebrated for their considerable contribution as frontline workers in hospitals, supermarkets, as caregivers and as community activists and communicators.

“The reality is that it is pretty tough to be young in the midst of a pandemic. Young people currently bear the brunt of growing unemployment given their over-representation in precarious labour. They will inherit the incredible levels of debt that countries are currently racking up – and will likely suffer from curtailed government welfare and spending in the future. Their futures are on hold as schooling is uncertain and future jobs are disappearing.

“So, what could we put in place to give young people more security and to encourage and enable their resilience to grow?

“First, continue social interaction: Our greatest strategy for success is in our togetherness as humans. Our togetherness – as adults and young people – is needed as we work together, intergenerationally, to respond to this pandemic. Together we share the frustrations and disappointments that Covid is inflicting on us all – young people are not alone in facing this – and letting them know they won’t be shafted is important.

“Second, promote normal routines and behaviour: As much as possible, life must go on. Ask any survivor of a disaster – the key to stability in uncertain times is seeking and finding normal patterns, routines and structures. Throwing ourselves into panic modes and isolation doesn’t allow us to respond calmly and with care and consideration.

“Third, allow young people a chance to express their opinions and imaginations: Ask young people themselves about what they value, where they find resilience and how they are currently supporting their peers and others. Rather than assuming they are vulnerable, its is important to recognise that they hold many of the solutions to the current troubles and are already acting on these.

“Opening up schools provides an opportunity to maintain normal routines, to promote social interaction and to provide opportunities for young people to be heard. Teachers are well-equipped to listen to young people, to promote their well-being and to encourage their creativity.

“Let’s not allow this medical disaster to become an isolating social disaster for young people. Instead, let’s look for imaginative social thinking and ways of organising that promote sustainable resilience.”

No conflict of interest.