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Ngongotahā School

Our journey through COVID-19 and hybrid learning

In this spotlight, Craig McFadyen, Principal of Ngongotahā School, discusses how their commitment to wellbeing, communication and whanaungatanga were at the forefront of their hybrid learning approach.

Ngongotahā School community is well served by three local marae, with an additional two marae that are on the outskirts of Ngongotahā itself. Ngongotahā School has a positive partnership with the local community and iwi. We value the importance of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and ensure all students at Ngongotahā School learn about their local area, history, traditions, language and all aspects of Te Ao Māori. In addition to English Medium, students at Ngongotahā School are given the opportunity to learn in a Māori Medium environment using Te Marau ā-kura. 

The school welcomes and embraces all students and endeavours to provide the best environment to suit the individual needs of each child. We believe that students learn best in an environment when positive relationships are developed and where whanaungatanga is fostered. Learning programmes recognise the multicultural society in which we now live, encouraging and supporting a mutual respect for cultural differences and beliefs and to help children foster an appreciation of their environment. “Iti rearea Kahikatea ka taea – Aim High Stand Proud”.

This spotlight has been created from discussions in June 2022, with Craig McFadyen, Principal of Ngongotahā School.

What we did

We focused on wellbeing first

I vividly remember sitting with my management team and BOT Chair discussing what the disruptions caused by COVID-19 would look like for us. In the end, it all came down to one word wellbeing. The wellbeing of our staff, the wellbeing of our community and especially the wellbeing of our tamariki. We surveyed our whānau to see who had appropriate internet connectivity and who had devices they could use for online learning. We created packs of learning, appropriate for each year level, containing enough work for a week or two. We packaged up kai from our Ka Ora Ka Ako program and provided it to those in need and then, on the 25th of March 2020, New Zealand moved from Alert Level 3 to Alert Level 4 and the country was placed into ‘Lockdown’. 

We took a breath before getting started

This was a completely new challenge for us as educators. As promised, we focused on wellbeing. We moved the school holiday forward a week. This gave our staff time to figure out what Covid life and lockdown life would look like for their own whānau. After the first two weeks of ‘school holidays’ we started our online learning. As it happens, this ended up being well timed as the novelty of staying home each day had worn off by then and the children were ready to get back into learning – whatever that was going to look like.

We stayed connected with students, whānau and staff

We began by sending home a daily email full of fun, engaging acivities and scheduled Zoom times for teachers to support and connect with their children. But we continually stressed to whānau that these were completely optional. Whānau were facing all sorts of issues themselves. For some, both parents had lost their jobs and were worrying about how they were going to pay the bills that week – learning was not high on their priority list. For others, they didn’t want to miss out on educational opportunities and wanted their children to continue learning as normally as possible, and others just needed their kids out of their hair while they worked from home. 

We communicated a lot

Teaching staff put together amazing activities and shared these with me each morning. I put together regular videos which I shared with the students and their whānau. I encouraged those who could to engage in the learning. I shared what my own whānau was doing and reassured them that things would be ok and that we’d be back to school shortly. I would highlight important points and dates from the 1pm daily Covid report and provide those to staff via email. It got to the point where many staff members would just wait for my email to find out how we as a school were going to be impacted with the latest round of announcements.

We survived and then reflected

We survived, and in my opinion, we did extremely well. Once we returned to school, things felt different. I thought there would be hesitancy about sending children back, but our attendance rates were good. We met as a staff to discuss what worked well during the lockdown. Our Provisionally Registered Teachers, being younger and more capable working with digital devices, took the lead and were able to offer ideas to other members of staff. We documented these ideas, consulted with the community about what worked well and what they would like changed in the future then filed them, hoping that we would never have to use this information again. How wrong we were.

This time we were ready

The August 2021 lockdown came very quickly. I remember sitting at a BOT meeting on the 17th of August and hearing the 6pm announcement that we would return to lockdown. We had already made up hardcopy packs of learning in preparation and we included more in them in the event that lockdown lasted as long as the previous one. Lots more whānau took these as an option this time. From our community survey after the first lockdown, we found that many of the families who had indicated they had devices to use for online learning hadn’t considered the need for older siblings to use them too.

For more information on communication and hybrid learning, please see: How does communication support ākonga, whānau, and kaiako with hybrid learning?

We communicated more effectively and connected more with ākonga

We modified our email full of fun learning opportunities to a more detailed weekly email as many of the whānau had become overwhelmed with daily emails, especially if they had 2 or 3 children in the household. Zoom sessions increased as whānau had indicated that the children really enjoyed the connectedness and our staff were now armed with new skills for these sessions. Again, wellbeing was always at the forefront. We encouraged and did everything we could to get children engaged but we knew that each whānau was navigating this experience differently. Engagement online was higher than in 2020. Fortunately, this lockdown didn’t last as long.

We provided online, paper-based and onsite learning at the same time

When we were able to bring some children back into school at level 3, we ran online learning, hardcopy packs of learning and also provide onsite learning for those who needed it. We deliberately didn’t use the terms ‘essential workers’ or ‘critical workers’; we knew the whānau who needed their children to come to school for whatever reason. I spoke with each member of staff about who would like to come in and work onsite with me, understanding that some had family members who had health concerns, and some were just simply too scared to come back for this. In the end, several teachers volunteered and we created our onsite school. Rules were in place to ensure these children stayed in bubbles, regular cleaning of high touch surfaces became a habit, and we were able to support our community again. It was lovely to have all the children back after this lockdown, but things had changed. 

We visited homes to get students back to school

Attendance was starting to be an issue as whānau had become used to having children home. We worked hard with these parents encouraging them to send their children to school every day. I personally visited houses and spoke with many different whānau. My concern was that I didn’t want children to develop a mentality towards school, and then work when they are older, of “it’s ok to take time off whenever you don’t feel like going”. It was important to us to develop that work ethic and get back into a habit of attending everyday – if they were well, of course. Thankfully, improvements came over time.

We moved to hybrid learning to support continuity of learning

Covid hit us hard in term 1 of 2022. Despite putting extensive measures in place to keep our staff and students safe, attendance plummeted to 35%. We had 7 or 8 of our 38 staff away each day. Covid was right throughout our kura. One morning, I looked at the fact I was the only person in a management position at school, 7 teaching staff out, several support staff out, well over 250 children away... it was time to make the call to move to hybrid learning to ensure learning would continue for all our students whether they were at home or at school.

We continued to put wellbeing first and connect with whānau

We continued to provide school lunches each day through the Ka Ora Ka Ako program. Mask wearing whānau came and collected the kai each day, so children continued to have healthy, nutritious meals for lunch. On return to school, I made contact with all of the whānau who were reluctant to send their children back last time and reassured them that things were safe and that their tamariki should be back every day. This made a difference, and our attendance is currently sitting at 91%, not perfect, but getting better each week.

Back to normal but planned and prepared for hybrid learning in the future

We have moved back to ‘business as usual’ as quickly as possible (safely of course). This has meant guest speakers, assemblies with our 400 students, school trips, noho marae, and being able to have our whānau back in school. We have found that this has made a huge impact. We stick closely to the Government’s rules but don’t put in additional restrictions on our whānau as some other schools have done. The way I see it – this is our community’s school as much as it is mine. We want them to feel included in their children’s learning. I believe that, if we have to move to hybrid learning in the future, we are planned and prepared to do so.

Reflections, observations, and learnings

There is no right or wrong way to do hybrid learning in my opinion. What works for your team, your community and your tamariki is the way you should approach this. What worked for us here at Ngongotahā School:

  1. Be flexible and listen. Looking back at what we did during the first lockdown, it was far from perfect. We took what worked well and made changes to make it better. We listened to what didn’t go so well and took that on board. This meant that we were more prepared, and accurate when it happened for the second time.
  2. Know your school whānau. We knew which whānau needed support with kai. We knew which ones were going through tough times and didn’t need us harassing them about their child’s learning and we knew the whānau that wanted their children to be engaged in learning for several hours a day. Then we tailored our hybrid learning to what they needed.
  3. Keep the communication lines wide open. 
  4. Remember the wellbeing of your staff – many of my staff are parents too. They were trying to juggle being an online teacher on top of being a parent and spouse. Teaching is a tough job without having to move to a totally different format. Keep them informed and have clear expectations. 
  5. Move back to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible – we followed all the MOE guidance to keep our students, staff and community safe. But we have worked hard to get back to our core purpose – delivering high quality education in a caring environment. Having whānau back on school grounds is good for the soul.