Coronavirus: Distance learning highlights New Zealand's stark digital divide

As learning from home becomes the new normal, many parents and schools are struggling to keep up.

With school term two underway, working mothers like Lea now have three jobs. She's a nurse, a parent and also a teacher to her six- and nine-year-old girls. It's a juggle many parents around the country are facing as 800,000 students return to study in lockdown without physically returning to school. And week one is proving a challenge.

"The first day it didn't go very well. I tried to do as much as I can but we didn't finish the whole day. We were still doing it right throughout the night," she told Newshub Nation. 

The challenge will only get harder as more parents return to their jobs. As a paediatric nurse, Lea never stopped working. It brings a risk to her and her family.

"I don't know what's going to happen if somebody gets admitted with the virus - I may have to sleep in a different room."

And it adds to the pressure of teaching her children - both can feel like a full time job.

"It's going to be quite tricky for me, because if I do a night shift it's like more than 24 hours of no sleep."

For others, the barriers to distance learning are larger. Mangere College is decile 1 - computers at home are a luxury. Out of 700 students, 550 don't have a device to learn at home. The Ministry of Education will help provide them, but so far they haven't arrived.

Mangere College principal Tom Webb told Newshub Nation he is very concerned. 

"This week they wouldn't have been able to do a lot of learning.  We were able to get some paper resources out to students before the lockdown happened, but that's not a sustainable way of working."

The school sent out its own devices to its year 13 pupils this week - students like Moa Herilla Victoria Salu. For her, this is a crucial year.

"It's university entrance and finding your plans for the next year, for the future," she told Newshub Nation. A school supplied laptop will make a big difference in a household where siblings have to share.

"There's me, my little sister and my older brother, and we only have one device at home, and we kind of just all share the same laptop at the same time."

But others at Mangere College are waiting. Term two began on Wednesday and for them school is effectively out.

Webb says it's clearly an issue of equitability. 

"For a school where the majority of our students don't have an adequate device, they'll be falling behind their peers in other schools, and the longer that we go on in this situation without schools being fully operational, then the greater that divide is going to become."

Coronavirus: Distance learning highlights New Zealand's stark digital divide
Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins admits students are still waiting, but he says help is on the way.

"Clearly that's not getting every household connected, and bear in mind that many households will have more than one child in them who needs some support," he told Newshub Nation. 

"Which is why we put that big focus on putting these hard packs together, printed materials together and dispatched."

Around 60,000 hard packs of printed materials have been sent out so far this week - with capacity to send half-a-million in all. For many Kiwis without internet access, it's the only resource they'll get.

So far 17,000 digital devices have been ordered by the Ministry of Education and another 10,000 are already owned by schools. But 80,000 homes lack a digital connection. Even when that extra help is delivered, 53,000 homes will miss out. 

"Yes, the truth is what it's highlighted is we've got a digital divide in some of the poorer communities of the country where they don't have good connectivity, and at a time like this that really becomes very apparent that that is a constraint," says Hipkins. 

But learning from home won't last forever, and Hipkins says alert level 2 will see classrooms fill up again.

"It's likely they'll be open to most students at level 2, but there may be some kids learning at home in that environment."

For families like Lea's that will ease the pressure, but only when she's sure her children are safe.

"One of them has asthma. At level 3 we're not quite happy to take them to school. Which was how I felt when we went to level 2, level 3, before we went to lockdown. We took them out of school straightaway."

In the meantime, families of all kinds are finding that learning from home is not child's play.