23 Feb 2022

Covid-19: Concern over long-term impact of pandemic on youth

6:57 am on 23 February 2022

As high schools around New Zealand prepare for a third year of interrupted learning due to Covid-19, some educators are concerned about the lasting impacts of the pandemic on young people.

Papatoetoe High School on Thursday 18 February.

Papatoetoe High School was at the centre of a Covid-19 outbreak last year, and now cases are appearing among student and staff. (File image) Photo: RNZ / Kate Gregan

Yesterday, the Ministry of Heath reported 2846 positive Covid-19 cases - a record high. It has already found its way into multiple schools around the country, with many students and teachers forced to once again stay at home.

For Papatoetoe High School principal Vaughan Couillault, this is an all too familiar situation.

Last February, his school was at the centre of a Covid-19 outbreak which put Auckland into an alert level 3 lockdown. That cluster grew to 15 cases spanning multiple families.

And yesterday, Papatoetoe High School had eight more students test positive.

Couillault said the school's Covid-19 safety precautions were working and he hoped the school would be able to stay open.

"Students at secondary school are getting it, but they're getting it from social events, from things outside of school, family reunions. You're getting it from weddings, you're getting it from those social events where you're up and close and intimate with people."

The number of Papatoetoe High School staff isolating at home has already reached double digits, with a further two reported as close contacts yesterday.

Couillault said speaking with students and staff who were isolating was now a regular feature of his day.

To help with staffing, the school has introduced a new roster system which requires each year level to have one at-home-learning day each week.

"As we get increasing numbers of students isolating, there's no point running classes if 58 percent of your kids are at home. There comes a time when the student attendance will dictate whether you flip into an online situation, as well as your ability to staff the school. There's a tipping point in terms of common sense," Couillault said.

Papatoetoe High School principal Vaughan Couillault

Papatoetoe High School Principal Vaughan Couillault. Photo: RNZ

Senior high school students have had a very disjointed couple of years, which he hoped would not leave any lasting scars, Couillault said.

"I hope that whoever picks them up next is cognizant of what we've had to go through and puts things in place to play that game of catch up that everybody is doing at some point or another."

One student who has had to adapt to pandemic schooling is Year 13 student Jacinta Po Ching, who is head girl at Taita College in Lower Hutt City, Wellington.

"For me, it's definitely difficult trying to adapt, especially trying to get used to working at home and not being able to get hands-on experiences. It just doesn't feel like the right way to learn for me, I'm not getting the full experience."

She has found it upsetting to watch some students struggle with online learning because they did not have access to adequate resources.

"Especially for teenagers in lower decile areas, and people who don't have Chromebooks or can't take things home because they don't even have Wi-Fi, they don't have a chance to even learn or do what they want to do or get on the same page as everyone else is. It puts them at a disadvantage."

With school events being cancelled due to Covid-19, she said many students were also finding it tough to socialise with their peers.

And because some students were not vaccinated, many sports games are being called off too.

"A lot of my friends, they can't get double vaccinated or just don't believe in it. So, a lot of the teams are being shortened and it's hard to find training times. Games have been cancelled as well. You can't face every school anymore because they don't have a fully vaccinated team, or they don't want to abide by the rules."

Mt Albert Grammar School

Mount Albert Grammar. File photo Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Mount Albert Grammar student Meg was 14 years old when the pandemic hit in early 2020. This year she will turn 17.

She said like all teenagers, Covid-19 had been hard on her mental health and grades at school.

"You just lose motivation, in a way, to do any work so your grades slip. It's been a whole extra level of stress."

Meg has already had to self-isolate once this year after being in close contact with a positive case.

She said this was very far from what she expected her last year at high school to be like.

"With more people I know getting [the virus], it's definitely an eye opener, and I'm very nervous about getting it and not being able to do things this year."

Alex Tarrant is the general manager of the Rising Foundation, which runs in partnership with five secondary schools in South Auckland to help students unlock their potential.

He said the pandemic had been a huge disruption for young people, not just to their schooling but also their personal development.

"Adolescence is so important for so many things. That's when we're forming our identity as people. That's when we start to understand who we are and start to really have a foundation for adult life. If that is disrupted, who knows what it's going to lead to.

"There's a lot of young people who don't have the kind of support that we offer, and I think it's been a genuine struggle for them, and probably for years to come they'll be playing catch-up for the time that they've lost because of the pandemic. "

During the Delta outbreak last year, a lot of students he worked with were impacted by Covid-19, including young people who lost family members to the virus.

Tarrant said the current surge in cases was making them all the more anxious about their futures.

"A lot of them are worried for the future, they're worried this is what the future is going to look like. But there's hope that this particular variant doesn't seem to be as dangerous. But even so, there is concern for their older relatives, pregnant relatives."

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