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Students' wellbeing should be schools' top focus after lockdown upheaval - education professor

As students enter their second week of school after the Covid-19 lockdown, one education expert is urging schools to put wellbeing ahead of assessments this term.

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The Covid-19 lockdown has changed the way children learnt, bringing anxiety and stress for some. Source: 1 NEWS

"My research, both through literature and also having worked through multiple disaster zones, tells me that the best way for schools to return is through the arts and with a focus on wellbeing," University of Auckland's Professor Peter O'Connor said.

With increasing job losses, Prof O'Connor said schools have a vital part to play in making sure the mental health of children is at the forefront.

He's encouraging schools to access Te Rito Toi, a website with communication, arts and drama resources created during the pandemic to help kids transition back into the classroom environment and express their worries and how to deal with them.

"They're working with 'how do you do deal with something that's big and terrifying and scary.' That's what we're all trying to do with Covid-19 but the arts provide a safe and distanced way for doing that," he said.

Prof O'Connor said the country could save money in the long-term by focusing on the mental health of children now.

"What you end up with if you don't focus on this sort of work, is in years to come highly anxious populations.

"There's enough stress in the world without going back to school in Year 9 and being thrown into doing algebra tests."

May Road School in Auckland is focusing on making school feel safe and fun for returning students.

A librarian dressed up as The Cat in the Hat providing sanitiser at the school gate, morning dancing and lessons about emotions from Te Rito Toi are part of the approach.

"Sometimes the message of meeting them where they're at emotionally is lost and I think now is the opportunity to really take a step back, prioritise and find out what's important to the kids," teacher Rearna Hartmann said.

Ms Hartmann said academic achievement can't take place, if the emotional needs of children aren't being met.

Stress and anxiety around test results, particularly for NCEA students, is a concern for high schools after the lockdown. 

"Online learning doesn't equate to giving them the opportunity to prove their best," Central Hawke's Bay College principal Lance Christiansen said.

He said initial changes announced to NCEA as a result of the pandemic, such as delaying end of year exams by a week, have not gone far enough to address inequity and students agree.

"That will definitely not be enough for me to catch up and get the results that I was probably aiming for," student Johanna Nieuwenhuis said.

"Some kids were essential workers so they didn't stop working, some kids' parents lost their jobs or some kids' parents have come out of this really financially struggling so I think that it's definitely affected all of our students in different ways, some better and some worse," student Toby Ward said.

Mr Ward said staff had been supportive but returning to class, he was finding it hard to focus for the full hour of lessons.

"We've got to put that extra hard yards in just to make sure that we pass and are able to do what we want next year," he said.
Extra counselling and mentoring is being offered at the school.

Mr Christiansen said he thinks NCEA should be changed this year to allow teachers to give students the marks they believe they should have got, "taking into account the impact of online learning on their opportunities."

Further changes to NCEA are being considered by the Government.

Ministry of Education secretary Iona Holsted said the remote learning experience is being investigated by the Education Review Office, including interviewing students.

"We were very agile, we responded to the needs of our teaching community, a lot of things had to be done on the fly, a lot of things didn't go as well as we would like but we've learnt a lot as well," she said.

Ms Holsted said while she can't predict the impact on NCEA results this year, students who may have lost learning opportunities during lockdown will need to be a focus for schools.

"Wellbeing comes first because if you can just take a breath and work out exactly how many credits you need, not more, because a lot of students do far more credits; they farm them quite frankly," she said.

"Just working out exactly what is your plan to get the subjects that you need to carry on your study, talk to your teacher, if your parents are worried, talk to the teacher," Ms Holsted advised students.

Ms Holsted said attendance remains lower than usual after the lockdown at around 80 per cent, compared to 87 per cent for this time of year.

"We're not setting a fixed date as which all children have to be back at school, what we are asking teachers to do, and I know they are doing, is connecting with families so that there is a plan for each of those children to be back as soon as possible," she said.

Ms Holsted said now is an opportunity to reset New Zealand's high rate of irregular school attendance, and remind families and students how important school is.