The school bell that rings out in the background of a phone call with Ivan Davis is a sign of just how quickly the school day has fallen back into place at Western Springs College in Auckland. With a whopping 1,700 students, it was a large ship to steer throughout lockdown, with a lot of challenges for both staff and students.
On the eve of students returning to school, Ivan, who is the principal of Western Springs College, sent everyone a long and thoughtful email about the difficulties of lockdown and why there was no pressure to return to “business as normal”.
“We want you to know that we are going to try and ease ourselves - students and teachers - back into school in a way that lowers anxiety,” he wrote. “Students must not feel judged, or that it’s too late to be able to do well this year. We need to see where everyone is at, and then look ahead to how being at school can really make a difference to how someone is feeling about their learning.”
“The number one value here is that if your head isn’t in the right space, learning isn’t going to happen,” Ivan says of the school’s dedication to mental health. “We’ve invested heavily in counselling and guidance services, including a stand-alone building students and families can access discretely.”
The school also works closely between parents and teachers to ensure a wraparound structure for students. It’s a structure that will be needed as the students and teachers work their way through what will be a very challenging year, following such a huge disruption.
Initially, Ivan says, he would have thought the best path forward was to return to normal routine as possible. But it was advice from Steve Saville, the former principal at Rolleston School in Christchurch, that after traumatic events like this, made him realise that wasn’t the way to go.
There have been a whole host of experiences over the lockdown, Ivan says. Some kids loved it; enjoyed having control over their workflow and time. Other kids have struggled. Access to a computer device, unstable internet, feeling disconnected from the classroom; these are all challenges some students have had to face. As a result, the normal class timetable now ends at 2pm; and there are catch-up classes running every day for kids who, for one reason or another, need some time to catch-up.
The empathetic language in the correspondence with students is no accident; Ivan is a big fan of kindness. “I’ve never been your traditional principal – I don’t wear a suit, I don’t wear a tie. I don’t wield a big stick,” he chuckles. “I know the vibe of the kids, I know the vibe of the community.
“It goes towards the kaupapa of the school – it’s a non-uniform school and they call us by our first names, just as we all call Jacinda Ardern by her first name. It’s been a very easy thing, to take this approach,” he says.
Ivan says there still are a percentage of students who are too scared to return to school – or, whose parents are too scared to have them return. The fear of a second wave, particularly after the Marist cluster, is a real thing. But, for the most part, it’s been a welcome return to school for everyone.
“Our attendance figures are running at 93-94% at every level,” Ivan says. “It’s pretty clear that after the long lockdown, the kids are tickled pink to be back. Which is lovely – generally, you might think the opposite!”
The social aspect of returning to school shouldn’t be underestimated, he says. “I’m sure academically, working online, they would get through; with me and the parents and the teachers on their case. But, actually, socially – they would be missing out. And it’s just great that kids, as well as parents, are getting that.”
Parents, whānau, and students will be having mixed thoughts and feelings about returning to school right now. For practical information on coping with this big adjustment, see the Mental Health Foundation’s new resource.