26 Oct 2021

Senior students wary of return to school in Auckland, Waikato

11:04 am on 26 October 2021

After 10 long weeks of at-home learning, Zoom lessons, and separation from friends, Auckland and Waikato senior students will be putting on their school uniforms and returning to campus this morning.

High school students

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

This comes after Auckland recorded its highest daily case numbers of 126 on Friday last week.

But despite more than two months in level 3 or 4 lockdown, not everyone is looking forward to going back.

Year 12 student at Kings College TJ Rusden Rowley is fully vaccinated and can't wait to get back in the classroom.

"I checked the news and it said they're sending senior students back and I was so excited. I literally screamed and my dad was like 'what?' and I said 'we're going back to school'. I was just running around the house so happy because I get to go back."

NCEA exams are set to go ahead in just under a month, with those students whose learning has been disrupted by lockdowns or unable to attend an exam eligible for an 'Unexpected Event Grade'.

TJ has been completing her practice exams online in preparation but said that studying at home has been distracting and lonely.

"For me personally, my motivation levels are just going to go up so much more with exams coming up just because I'm not sitting at home with both of my parents who teach, and all of us trying to do classes at the same time. And it's like a new lease of life and it's not just being stuck at home and getting a bit lonely and it's nice to see some new faces and socialise again."

But the story is different for Year 12 Manurewa High School student Selina Silila Helg.

"I was really excited to go back to school, excited to see my friends, to get the support for exams from my teachers in person, to get out the house. Because I'm sick of online learning and staying home, but then I guess reality hit and I remembered the risk this poses for my people, Māori and Pasifika people."

Over 75 percent of the cases in this current outbreak are Māori and Pasifika people.

And although Selina, who is fully vaccinated, wants to go to school and study for upcoming exams, she is apprehensive about returning, and is concerned for her whānau and community.

"The reality is my people are, and will continue to be, impacted the most by Covid-19. I'm feeling really worried about my peers at school, my community in South Auckland and especially my family. Knowing that although going back to school would benefit me in my exams, I'd still be putting them at risk by being surrounded with other people."

Jireh Fogavai is in her final year of school at Sancta Maria College, and is also concerned about the government's decision to send senior students back today.

She is also fully vaccinated, but worried people won't follow social-distancing and mask wearing requirements.

"I know a lot of people who are really excited to go back to school, see their friends, but I feel like being in one area with multiple people. It's kind of like a gathering because I know there's a lot of people who can't really stay in their boundaries, so they're going to be hugging and everything so it's going to be spreading really fast."

When it comes to NCEA exams, Jireh is confident in her ability and feels prepared.

"I don't have many exams, but I know there's other people out there who have a lot of exams, so I think I'm good. I think I can do it. I think I'll be more motivated because staying at home you don't have the teachers right next to you so you don't have to do work. It will give me a push."

While exam time is usually a stressful time for senior students, the pandemic and continuous lockdowns have seen them facing added pressure.

Dr Sarah Watson, a senior clinical child and adolescent psychologist at Totally Psyched, a private mental health clinic, said it seems there are two mindsets amongst teens that are returning.

"The one side are those adolescents who absolutely love being at home, and they've got stable home environments and they like the fact that they don't have to be socializing with everybody at school. There's not the pressure of having to go to school, so it's actually quite laid back and they quite like it.

"And then there's the others: those that feel they need their friends, and the loss of their friends and the social aspect of school is really hard; or the academic support that they get and the competence and confidence that they get around being in academia. It really just does depend."

Since the announcement, she and her team have seen a major increase in anxiety amongst those who are going back to school.

She said some will be feeling they haven't done enough schooling at home and feel as if they are behind, and others will struggle with social skills.

"There will be some who are just going to be a lot more aware of health and the potential consequences of health. It's especially frightening if you have a vulnerable family member at home, which some will."

There will be added complications for the Ministry of Education today, with some Auckland high schools like Takapuna Grammar School advising students to stay home.

Students have been told that the school has an excellent, well considered plan in place for the start of term that is working and that the proposal outlined by the government is not practical nor necessary for them.

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