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My Covid education: East Auckland student says schooling shouldn't be a 'luxury'

As NCEA examinations continue around the country, it signals the beginning of the end of an eventful year for many. But, for some students, they say the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenges their communities were already facing. 1 NEWS spoke to three Auckland students as they look back on 2020.

Fine-Na'akakala Aholelei. Source: Supplied

Fine-Na'akakala Aholelei says the Covid-19 pandemic has made the school year tough for her, but that she was luckier than most. 

Next year, Aholelei is hoping to go to university to study Pacific studies, with either law or global studies. For now, she was focused on getting through NCEA. 

“I'm privileged enough to not have to worry about work, or about younger siblings, because I don't have many siblings and they’re old enough to take care of themselves,” the Year 13 Auckland Girls Grammar School student from Point England said. 

Aholelei, who is of Tongan descent, said there were other students at the decile three school who weren’t as fortunate as her.

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My Covid education: East Auckland student says inequalities in learning made worse by pandemic

“To be honest, in our community, it shouldn't be viewed as a luxury, that should just be the standard. But, it’s not like that,” she said. 

“I know a lot of girls who had to give up coming to school to babysit their younger siblings. In a lot of Pacific families, the oldest sister will always have to compromise for their younger siblings, especially if their parents are at work.

“For one of the girls, during lockdown, she wasn't able to attend any of our online classes and modules  because she was busy babysitting her younger siblings at home. And when she did come back to school, she was so behind.”

Aholelei said that student eventually ended up leaving school. 

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Andrew Becroft said brave children are sacrificing their education to either get jobs or look after younger family members. Source: Breakfast

“How are you supposed to focus on exams when you’re the only person babysitting your younger siblings, and when your mum and dad are worried about losing their job because of Covid?

It was part of the reason Aholelei joined forces with other student leaders to organise free study classes for their peers in the lead up to exams. 

“We had free resources, free Wi-Fi and free food,” she said of the AUT-funded initiative. 

“We did it because when we’re at school, that’s the only time we can study because when we come back home, it’s a completely different situation, and we can’t control that situation.”

SCHOOL AN ESCAPE

But, while she was busy helping others, there were also times she struggled with her mental health during lockdown, Aholelei said. 

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“School was my escape. Because of lockdown, all of those realities and everything becomes more surreal, and I had to confront them,” she said.

“But, I’m doing way better now that I was before.”

Aholelei said part of the challenge of mental health came down to facing up to cultural norms.

“In our community, that was really hard for people to navigate the mental health side,” she said.

“It was so hard to navigate that during lockdown, because mental health is a really taboo subject in the Pacific community. 

“A lot of our young people didn’t have a place to escape. They couldn't go anywhere they wanted to. They couldn't use school as an excuse and they had to stay home. 

“And, I don’t want to generalise my community, but there are some that come from a lot of homes that experience drug abuse, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and poverty.”

Pasifika Year 13s also faced additional pressure to succeed, Aholelei said. 

“In my experience, and I know there’s a lot of us in the Pacific community, we're the first to graduate from high school in our families, or we're the first to go to university.

“I know there’s just so much pressure on Pasifika Year 13s because they experience that, as well as other students who have immigrant parents.”

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Manurewa High School principal Peter Jones says students are taking jobs to try make ends meet for their family. Source: Breakfast

But, Aholelei said she was hopeful for change through initiatives like free study classes. 

"For organisations ... they can help if they put their money where their mouth is.

"Because, in reality, we need funding to support these students and level the playing field."