At the end of 2019 I resigned after nearly 22 years as a Catholic College Principal thinking I had experienced most of the complex situations that can take place in a Catholic College.  But just one term later, all New Zealand schools have had to manage the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, with schools being forced to close for four weeks and to work remotely. This is an unprecedented challenge for schools that no one would have foreseen at the start of the 2020 year.

As we watched the Asian countries try to find ways to slow down the Covid-19 pandemic, we gradually became aware that school closures in New Zealand were possible. My own son Michael and his wife Athena are teaching at Seisen International School, a Catholic girl’s school In Tokyo, and they were closed down, due to Covid-19, on March 2nd. They are still closed. I was interested in what was expected of teachers in Japan in this situation.  In my son and daughter in law’s case, the expectation of the teachers is that they are available from 9am -11am and from 1pm – 3pm on school days to work with their students online.

In New Zealand it seems, from talking to my teacher and Principal colleagues and from looking at the websites and Facebook pages of schools, that most colleges here are keeping their normal timetables going with staff being available to work online with their classes at the scheduled teaching times.  Teachers across the country have done a fantastic job to get ready to teach remotely, clearly illustrated by the fact that many schools started teaching online on Thursday 26th March, the very first day of the lockdown.  Most New Zealand teachers are very familiar with Google Classroom, Education Perfect, Microsoft 365 and other platforms but they have had to work hard to collect and organise digital resources into teaching programmes that will suit their particular students and get used to video conferencing platforms. Schools quickly contacted every one of their families to check that all students had access to a device and the family had access to the internet. Where possible schools have given out chromebooks or laptops to students who didn’t have a device. There has been significant on-going support from the MOE and from Telcos to make this happen. I understand that some families without wifi, have found ways to use their neighbours wifi while data caps have been temporarily removed.

Schools have adapted quickly, clearly explaining to students and families what is expected in the new online environment.  At McAuley High School in Auckland, students have been given clear instructions about online etiquette when working on Google Hangouts, a video conferencing platform, with their teacher and class.  These instructions include: “Dress appropriately when participating in a Hangout Conversation: eg no pajamas, hoodies, hats etc!” I am sure many other schools have given similar advice. St Bede’s College in Christchurch continues that wonderful Marist tradition of weekly notes, where every student gets a grade for effort at the end of each week, and these are shared with parents.  They have already adapted the weekly notes criteria for online learning. A top weekly note is now for: “Excellent engagement with home-based learning” and a low weekly note is for: “Has not engaged in any learning material.” This means that all parents, at least at St Bede’s, will see whether their sons are doing the work that has been set.

The area that really interests me, though, is how much focus our Catholic colleges have been placing on ensuring their special Catholic character is kept alive during the lockdown. I am thrilled to be able to see so many innovative ways our schools are doing this. The special Catholic character of a college is shown in the ways that schools provide opportunities for the practice of the Faith, give pastoral care to students, their families and their staff and build a sense of community.

A quick search of college websites and Facebook pages show some wonderful examples of opportunities schools are providing families for liturgy and prayer. St Peters College in Auckland has on its website’s homepage, links to five short liturgies for each of the major celebrations during Holy Week.  Aquinas College in Tauranga, St Catherine’s College in Wellington and Marion College in Christchurch all have student created liturgies, all ready to be used in their own communities, on their Facebook pages. Many schools have offered resources for prayer and reflection, links to online Masses and plenty of encouragement for families to use them.

Our Catholic schools have always been known for the quality of the pastoral care they give to students and that is really coming through in the current situation.  In many schools, it is clear that the student leaders have taken on special roles in checking up on other students, especially those who may be vulnerable.  Many schools have student leaders organising competitions, encouraging their fellow students to keep fit, to follow the lockdown rules, to develop routines, to do their schoolwork, to help out in their families and to keep in touch. Most schools continue to offer counselling services and to give good advice on positive mental health to both students and parents

Looking after staff is also an important part of Catholic special character and it is especially important during lockdown. At Cullinane College in Whanganui the staff are divided into groups of five with one person responsible for regularly checking in on everyone in their group. Most schools are organising regular staff online meetings, some professional and some social, and there is a clear sense from school leaders that they need to be understanding of the widely different family circumstances of their staff.  Many schools are reminding parents that teachers too have families, and their own challenges during lockdown, and need to be given some leeway to work out the best way of operating according to their own circumstances.

I was worried that New Zealand teenagers would be difficult to manage during the lockdown without the daily routine of going to school. However, the overwhelming majority appear to have been sensible, responsible and supportive of the challenge placed before us by our Prime Minister to follow the Level Four rules.  They have been helped significantly by the work of teachers and Principals and by their families and it is wonderful to see that the Catholic character of our schools shines through even when schooling is being conducted remotely.  This should give all us great hope for the future of our Church in Aotearoa.

Neal Swindells, Independent Educational Consultant


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