New Zealand principals voice alarm as students fail to return to school after Covid lockdowns

New Zealand school principals are raising the alarm that students are falling off the rolls, as a wave of absenteeism follows the disruption of Covid-19.

In 2021, schools in Auckland and parts of the North Island were shut down for weeks or months as the country went into lockdown. Since then, however, principals say a worrying number of students have not made it back to school, or are not attending regularly. Vulnerable students are falling through the gaps and disappearing, despite schools visiting homes and contacting families and neighbours to find them.

“I’ve already taken 42 children off the roll totally, because they’d been away more than 20 days – that’s in term one,” said Shirley Maihi, the principal of Finlayson Park school in Manurewa, south Auckland, which has a roll of about 960. “Since then, we’ve still got something like 22 that we are trying to trace.” She said as well as the children who had disappeared off rolls completely, a large chunk of children were attending only intermittently – just two or three days a week.

A ministry inquiry into the issue, released in March, found a “disturbing increase in the proportion of students who are chronically absent” – defined as students who attend less than 70% of the school year. Between 2016 and 2022, the proportion of chronically absent pupils doubled to 9% . Overall, the proportion of students attending school regularly fell more than four percentage points in 2021 to 59.7% – with the decline most pronounced for schools in poorer neighbourhoods, and among Māori and Pacific students. “Sadly, some children are being forced out of school and into work to support their families,” the report concluded.

“The difficulty is understanding exactly why they are away,” said Cherie Taylor-Patel, the president of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation. “They could be away because of Covid … they could be away because of sickness and winter illnesses. And they could be away because they’re out of the habit of coming to school.”

When schools switched to online learning during Covid shutdowns, poorer students were hugely disadvantaged, she said. The idea that all students could easily access Zoom, safe or quiet environments, laptops, or adult assistance was “absolutely so far from the reality of what they can expect to happen when they go home”, she said. “It is incredibly inequitable.” For students who disengaged then, she said, schools now face the challenge of bringing them back.

Maihi said many families were facing a tangle of problems: the rising cost of living, inflation and petrol prices are all putting extra stress on families, and in some cases, school attendance was falling down the priority list. “Clothing for the winter is a huge issue this year. We’ve never had that before,” she said. “Parents are under duress themselves, under stress from trying to meet the rent, trying to meet the food [costs] … They’re just not seeing that the fight in some cases to get the children to school is worthwhile for them.”

The government inquiry concluded that “Covid-19 appears to have also worsened existing inequities in school attendance”, and 40% of students who developed poor attendance had not done so before Covid-19. In the latest budget, the government pledged $40m to tackle problems with school attendance.

“You’ve got a group of families that are dealing with generational and situational poverty issues,” said Taylor-Patel. “If you haven’t got a house and you’re transient, it’s very difficult to make getting into school every day a priority. If you’re worrying about food, and money every day – again, sometimes school gets into the too-hard basket.”

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