'There's a huge amount of anxiety': New Zealand wrestles with back-to-school virus blues

Charlotte Graham-McLay
Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

As the weeks of New Zealand’s strict coronavirus lockdown ticked by, Catherine* observed her 17-year-old daughter, who is in her final year of high school, become more nocturnal and less motivated: “I thought, ‘This is actually going to go quite badly,’” she said of her daughter’s return to school, which happened in the past fortnight as shutdown restrictions loosened. 

“It’s led to a lot of tricky situations where she’s been really upset by the amount of time we’ve spent saying, ‘Are you doing your assessments that you’re meant to be doing?’” Catherine said. Her daughter, who has ADHD and dyslexia, performs better when she can talk to people and work in groups. 

“The teacher was emailing and saying, ‘We’re really worried, she’s not joining the Google Hangouts that we have scheduled and we don’t know what she’s doing,’” Catherine added.

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New Zealand’s most senior high school students had missed eight weeks of school by the time restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 were relaxed to the point where they could return. And as parents wrestle with back-to-school blues, researchers in New Zealand say the accumulated stress and anxiety students are experiencing should not be underestimated.

In a country where some pupils have already faced a series of devastating earthquakes and hours in lockdown during a deadly terrorist attack, those who have studied the effects on education say their work might offer clues about how the world’s children and teenagers will fare after the pandemic – and what could help them cope. 

“Research has shown it’s the accumulation of traumatic events in childhood that’s one of the highest risk factors for the onset of many adult health problems,” said Kathleen Liberty, a retired associate professor in child health at the University of Canterbury. 

“They found it’s not just the age of the child at which the trauma is experienced, but the number of traumatic events plus a consideration of their severity and duration and intensity that became the predictor,” she said.

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‘No one in Christchurch has zero events’

In 2010 and 2011, a series of two major and thousands of smaller earthquakes devastated Christchurch, killing 185 people, destroying and damaging 100,000 homes and setting a city – which is still rebuilding – on edge. 

“Three or four traumatic events during childhood are an extremely strong predictor of the onset of problems in your 20s and 30s, or even before,” Liberty said. “No one in Christchurch has zero events.”

A study she and a colleague conducted in the aftermath of the quakes found children starting school – including who were in utero at the time the earthquakes happened – were five times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder than other New Zealand children. 

Behavioural issues, anxiety, toileting problems and eating disorders were also much more common in the students, who are now aged 10 and older.

For most, that hasn’t been the only disruption to their education. When a gunman stormed two mosques in Christchurch last March – killing 51 Muslims during Friday prayers – thousands of school and pre-school students remained in lockdown for several hours, a shocking occurrence in a country that had never experienced a major modern-day terrorist attack. 

“After that we had quite a high level of stress and anxiety among the students,” says Thomas Newton, a teacher at Villa Maria College and spokesperson for the local branch of the secondary teachers’ union. Students had been trapped in small rooms with no air conditioning during the shooting lockdown using rubbish bins as toilets, he said. 

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Researchers urge mental health strategies

The school had expected to deal with repercussions from that event this year; instead, the pandemic hit. 

“We knew that the earthquake generation was coming through college,” said Newton, adding that the school had needed to fund an extra counsellor. “There’s a huge amount of anxiety in the current crop of teenagers.”

Since final-year students had returned to school following the coronavirus lockdown, he was “hearing a couple of times a day, ‘How many credits have I got, am I going to be able to get enough?’” he said. “The Year 13s are really stressed out.”

When she studied education inequities following the Christchurch quakes for her Master’s thesis at the University of Canterbury in 2013, Maria Connolly found an absence of other research on how pupils performed at school after urban disasters.

In her own fact-finding, she discovered that by 2012, two years after the earthquakes began, the results of students at most – though not all – of the wealthiest schools she studied were back to pre-earthquake levels.

But at some of Christchurch’s poorest schools, marks took a greater hit than at richer ones – and grades had not rebounded by 2012 as wealthier schools’ did. 

In 2020, said Connolly, who is now a teacher at Lincoln High School outside of Christchurch, teachers felt “better prepared” for the repercussions of the pandemic “due to their previous experiences in 2011.”

In fact, researchers said, there was much to be learned from the Christchurch example.

“The most important thing we learned from the Canterbury earthquakes was that we didn’t recognise or sufficiently deal with the after effects of trauma,” said Carol Mutch, an education professor at the University of Auckland. It wasn’t until after another major earthquake in 2016, she said, that a widespread programme was put in place to “deal with the consequences of unmet mental health needs in schools”.

The good news, said Liberty, was that some Christchurch schools had managed to improve student behaviour and achievement through a series of measures she had encouraged – and she hoped more would be interested in deploying them after the Covid-19 lockdown.

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One strategy that had made a major difference in quake-stricken classrooms was shifting the students’ schedules so that they ate morning tea and lunch after playing outside, rather than before, she said. Teachers had also rearranged classrooms to successfully calm students; certain colours generated stress and should be avoided, Liberty said, and objects hanging from the ceiling banished.

Principals exhort universities to relax entrance rules

In the meantime, school principals like Ragne Maxwell, of Porirua College – a school in a deprived part of the Wellington region – told Radio New Zealand that some of this year’s crop of students might leave school without qualifications.

“There are students who will fail level 2 and level 3 and university entrance this year because of this situation,” she said, referring to the assessments pupils complete in their final two years of high school. 

Every principal who spoke to the Guardian exhorted the New Zealand Qualifications Authority to relax or jettison requirements for students to achieve a certain number of “credits” to qualify for New Zealand’s university entrance standard. 

The authority said in a statement that it had implemented a number of changes – including a 10-day deferral on end-of-year exams – and planned to ensure students who “remain engaged in learning” were still able to receive their qualification. 

The statement added that the authority is consulting with universities about whether entrance rules should be relaxed.

Catherine says her daughter might be one of those relying on such a move.

“If you see kids for the rest of the year who are just not doing well, is that because they just can’t be bothered, or because they’re traumatised, or because they’re family’s going through something?” she said. “I just think it’s going to be a long time before they really unravel what’s actually going on.”

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* Name has been changed for her children’s anonymity.