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Back to school after a year stuck at home

Having recently moved here with his family from the UK, Chris Hall reflects on sending his two young children to school in New Zealand for the first time as well as the sacrifices that were made along the way.

After my girlfriend and I dropped our children off for the start of school two weeks ago – and today they’ve started again after the short lockdown in Auckland – we went for a coffee. Nothing unusual in that, but it was for us. We’ve recently moved here from the UK, and it was more or less the first time in nearly a year that we’d been together without our two daughters, aged 12 and 7. In silence we looked at each other over our flat whites, eyebrows raised as if to say “what the hell was that?”, not knowing where to start.

We shared the usual somewhat mixed feelings most parents have after the summer holidays when their children return to school (though of course, for some children homeschooling is the best environment for them). There were some anxieties, yes, but let’s be honest, there was wild elation too. But mostly we felt – and still feel – a kind of shellshock. It’s profoundly disorienting coming from a country where the pandemic has raged so fiercely for so long to one where it hasn’t taken hold. Relief doesn’t even touch it.

The last time our 12-year-old was physically in school was March 20 last year. Her secondary school closed to all but the children of key workers and those classed as vulnerable the week before the first UK national lockdown on March 23. She never went back. For pupils in the UK, the pandemic has often felt like the guiding principle of Seinfeld – “no hugging and no learning”.

When schools in England reopened at the beginning of the academic year in September, we decided against sending her back and homeschooled her instead as our move to New Zealand was imminent. She’d been very nervous about returning, and I don’t blame her. Though the second crushing wave of coronavirus deaths was just beginning, she’d already seen her mother laid very low by it and suffer from long-running Covid symptoms (extreme fatigue, loss of sense of smell and taste etc) and she’d had suspected Covid-19 herself.

Our seven-year-old had been at home since March too but briefly returned to school in September before the start of the second English lockdown. Being younger and, err, let’s say more kinetic than her sister, she clearly needed the company of her peers and so she had a few weeks back in her classroom. It was heartbreaking that she couldn’t properly say goodbye to her school friends. No farewell party, no tearful hugs, she just… left.

The school situation necessitated a constantly updated risk assessment. Trying to align work visas, managed isolation vouchers, a house sale and flights was very stressful and the last thing we wanted to do was for one of us to get coronavirus and set us back months. We’d read so many awful stories of people unable to get back home to New Zealand. It was unthinkable.

There were weeks (or was it months?) where we felt the walls closing in, many suboptimal days when motivation was a problem, when the TV became a supply teacher and when it felt like you’d done enough just to get through the day. The hardest thing as a couple has been having very little decompression time together – our daughters were awake later and later as the pandemic progressed.

Limiting screen time often seemed like a pointless task but thank goodness they were happy also to read a book, play board games and make art. Film night was now every night. Our eldest often acted as a babysitter for the youngest when work commitments were at their most pressing, perhaps growing up that little bit faster in the process. Their teachers did their best with remote learning (though frustratingly, there were no live lessons, it was all set work). Looking back, it was our youngest who was hit the hardest not being able to run around with friends, go swimming or go to the playground, which was taped off like a crime scene.

Though we were able to go out to some extent between the lockdowns (the absurdity of the tiered rules exemplified by the fact that at one point you could have a pint but only with a “substantial meal” with table service, which turned out to include a lone Scotch egg) we mostly acted as though it was one long lockdown. We stayed at home. We wore a mask whenever we went out. We practised social distancing. Toughest of all, we met their older brother who lived in a nearby city at a halfway point and always outside.

New Zealand schoolchildren have of course missed some schooling too, particularly those in Auckland, and this will affect their future educational outcomes, more so if they come from a lower socio-economic background. It’s a privileged position for us that we have been more concerned with our daughters’ mental health than them missing so much formal education (after all, children in many Scandinavian schools don’t start till they’re seven and they turn out OK).

For us, the whakatau and the very warm welcome we’ve experienced at their new school has meant our daughters have been bouncing home beaming after school. Other than the cost of the uniforms, it really does feel like paradise after the year we’ve had.




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