PNG schools adjust to 'new normal'

7:13 am on 14 May 2020

An urban private school and a rural public school in Papua New Guinea have found different ways to adjust to the "new normal" of life with Covid-19.

Kopkop staff wash their hands in newly installed basins.

Kopkop staff wash their hands in newly installed basins. Photo: Kopkop College

Closed for six weeks under the state of emergency, PNG schools opened their doors to students last week, although attendance is not yet compulsory.

A 'circular instruction' issued by the Education Department on 24 April states, "parents are allowed to keep their children at home if they think it is unsafe for them to go to school" during the "new normal".

The instruction also required schools to install hand washing or sanitizing stations at points of entry.

Kopkop College, an affluent private school in Port Moresby, was quick to set up basins.

The school's executive director, Maria Kopkop, said parents were encouraged to remind children about the importance of hand washing.

"All the blocks in the primary school, the secondary school, canteen, the entry points, the toilets, walkways; we have water troughs everywhere designed by our team," Ms Kopkop said.

Kopkop College's newly installed basins.

Kopkop College's newly installed basins. Photo: Kopkop College

In contrast, Awaba Secondary School, a remote public college in Western Province's Middle Fly district, is not connected to water mains.

With only rainwater tanks to draw from, principal Simita Magen has carefully positioned hand sanitizer about the grounds.

"At the main entry points for day students, boarding boys, boarding girls, and outside the staff-room for teachers," Mr Magen said.

Staff and students at PNG schools must also wear masks, something not required in New Zealand or Australia but mandatory in France.

"It's only teachers that have masks but we only have one box," Mr Magen explained. "We are keeping it until such time when we see a teacher having a cough, then we give them a mask.

"We cannot find masks in the shops. We went to Balimo, the nearest town, we couldn't locate masks. We were able to buy from a Chinese shop, the masks, one box and gloves too."

As for Awaba's students, parents must equip them with masks.

A Kopkop college student wearing a mask.

A Kopkop college student wearing a mask. Photo: Kopkop College

"We gave this responsibility to the parents to sew some masks from some material they can find but not many have come back. I only sighted two this morning during assembly," the principal said.

Kopkop College parents are also required to provide masks for their children.

"All the school's children, staff, all are wearing masks at the moment," Ms Kopkop said.

"We asked the parents to go and buy the masks from pharmacies. In Port Moresby at the moment, there are people sewing masks and selling masks for three kina so parents were encouraged to purchase those from the markets."

The abundance of masks may have convinced the majority of Kopkop's parents to send their children back to school, while most of Awaba's students are yet to return.

Mr Magen said that had made it easier to enforce social distancing required by the Education Department.

"Numbers are very low so in terms of our desks we've got students sitting further away from each other," he said.

A chemistry lesson at Awaba Secondary School.

A chemistry lesson at Awaba Secondary School. Photo: Simita Magen

"Most students didn't return after the lockdown so we've got enough spacing in the classrooms."

Meanwhile, Kopkop College has had to divide the school day and students into two shifts, 8am to 11am and 12pm to 3pm. Classes are split into two groups with each in its own room.

Students not on shift and those not back at school can continue to learn at home through the internet.

"The first week when we heard about the lockdown we didn't wait," Ms Kopkop said. "Kopkop College started straight away on the Moodle, which offers online education throughout the primary as well as the secondary school.

"For those that cannot access online, they have the opportunity for the school to give them hard copies of lessons. They come pick them up from us; they deliver for assessment and marking. The other mode is the simple flash drive."

Distance learning is also available for public school students through the Education Department on "TV, radio and online", however, barriers exist in Middle Fly.

Classrooms at Awaba Secondary School.

Classrooms at Awaba Secondary School. Photo: Simita Magen

"Giving homework to those who are not coming is very difficult," Mr Magen said.

"Our feeder schools and remote villages that give us the children, these villages are really remote. Most of them do not have electricity to run TV.

"Radio? You can't buy a radio where you listen to Papua New Guinea NBC or Radio New Zealand. There are Chinese radios but they use these medium frequencies… so the type of radio is also a problem for us now.

"Many villages do not receive network. You have to walk to some place where you can receive network, maybe climb a tree. So this talk about government giving us internet learning, e-learning, that's almost impossible with where my school is and the surrounding community where the children are coming from."

From the relative privilege of Port Moresby, Ms Kopkop said she could sympathise with public school principals like Mr Magen.

"The department should have organized the public school system better than what they did," she said.

"It's good for issuing procedures and processes but giving them the materials to enable the public schools to cater for the requirements - perhaps it is a different story altogether."

A Kopkop College teacher shows how benches have been marked to encourage social distancing.

A Kopkop College teacher shows how benches have been marked to encourage social distancing. Photo: Kopkop College

The PNG government said it had released about $US15 million to schools this year but some schools claimed they had not received any funding. Mr Magen said his school had been given about $US4000.

"They said we must use it for these Covid things so we are using that money but then we could have a problem with trying to run the meals."

With a ready supply of bleach and disinfectant, Mr Magen has also complied with directives to designate places to isolate sick students, something he's not convinced district authorities are prepared for.

"Covid-19 is here to stay. The district does not have a separate ward. We did address this at Balimo with the DDA (District Development Authority).

"Unfortunately the Education Superintendent said 'no, don't talk about this'. Just talk about what we are doing in the school. But these are not isolated issues. They are all tied together."

Rain water tanks being connected to bathrooms at Awaba Secondary School.

Rain water tanks being connected to bathrooms at Awaba Secondary School. Photo: Simita Magen