Staff, student absences taking schools to the brink as COVID-19, flu hit, principals warn

By John Gerritsen for RNZ

Secondary school principals have united to make an unprecedented call for help from the government.

In a letter obtained by RNZ, the leaders of 10 regional principals' associations said schools were at or near breaking point because of the stress of ongoing staff and student absences.

They implored the government to reveal as soon as possible how it would help teens pass NCEA this year.

"The disruption to learning during this calendar school year is at levels we have never experienced before. Although affecting all students, these disruptions have disproportionately impacted our most vulnerable learners," the letter said.

"Kura are increasingly unable to deliver teaching and learning programmes or engage in agreed change processes in the face of unprecedented staff and student absences, recruitment and retention issues and surging costs [relief in particular]."

One of the signatories, Counties Manukau Secondary Principals' Association chairperson Karen Brinsden from Botany Downs Secondary College, told RNZ some teens were giving up hope.

"There are a large number of students across the region that are disengaged, students that are feeling that they are too far behind to catch up or even get on top of their studies," she said.

"Well-being of students is a great concern. There's a high number of students being supported by counsellors for anxiety, depression, and of course with very limited resources that schools have."

The Qualifications Authority has recognised the disruption caused by the pandemic by allowing students to earn extra credits and last year made end-of-year exams optional in the worst-affected regions.

Greater Wellington Principals' Association chair Kevin Carter from Rongotai College said one option this year would be to lower the number of credits students must achieve to get an NCEA certificate.

Whatever NZQA decided, it needed to do it soon, he said.

"There just needs to be some clarity and for it to happen early and not to be a prolonged discussion about what relief is going to be on the table. Certainly we're hearing up and down the country and across here in Wellington that students' motivation, engagement in learning is down this year."

Carter said at his own school about half the students had been absent in terms one and two because they had COVID-19 this year and a further 20-30 percent had been absent because household contacts had the virus.

In addition, staff had been absent for the same reasons and in term two influenza had ensured about 20 percent of students were absent on some days, he said.

Canterbury and West Coast Principals' Association president Phil Holstein from Burnside High School said, unlike previous years, there had been no lockdowns affecting some regions more than others.

He said that would make it harder to figure out which schools needed the most help and how to provide it.

Auckland Secondary Principals' Association president Greg Pierce from Orewa College said if the government did not act, the most vulnerable students would suffer.

"It's disproportional the effect this could have on them if nothing is changed," he said.

NCEA assessment changes treated as high priority

The associations' letter was sent to Minister of Education Chris Hipkins and Associate Education Ministers Jan Tinetti and Kelvin Davis last week.

This morning, the Qualifications Authority and Ministry of Education sent a letter to secondary principals saying NCEA assessment changes for this year were a high priority.

"The ministry and NZQA are looking at ways we can support teaching and learning over the remainder of the year, as well as the kinds of changes to assessment that are appropriate to the situation in 2022," the letter said.

It said any solutions would need to be equitable and proportionate to the disruption faced; credit actual learning that had occurred; be easy to understand and broadly accepted; and minimise workloads.

Tinetti told RNZ she would respond to the principals in writing and would also offer to meet them.

She said school staff were doing an extraordinary job and the government was listening to their warnings.

Tinetti said some education work programmes had been slowed down or postponed already but that had to be balanced with the need to make changes that would make a difference in engaging ākonga (students).

"I will continue to support the ministry to look at options to support schools dealing with uncertainty and disruption in this Covid-19 environment," she said.