Schools not equipped to be community hubs in disaster responses – report

Teachers in areas devastated by Cyclone Gabrielle say they are not equipped for their role as community hubs when disaster hits.

A report by the teachers union has shown more support, funding and emergency supplies are needed for schools to respond to future storms.

The report, titled ‘We Are Still Here’ and published by the New Zealand Educational Institute, found after Cyclone Gabrielle, schools experienced an increased workload and a lack of mental health support, worsened by a general lack of psychologists.

It made six recommendations, including the need for schools and early childhood centres be properly recognised and resourced for their role as community hubs, and provided with satellite internet and generators.

“Most did not already have these, which slowed the process of reopening schools,” it said.

It also found the role of schools in disaster responses “seems to have been ignored by the Ministry of Education and central and local government disaster response agencies”, despite a “large body of research” to back this up.

Equally, early childhood centres should be included in that, “equal to that of schools”, and resourced appropriately. It noted that “unlike schools, ECE centres received no extra staffing support”.

Schools were given funding in Budget 2023 ($700,000 over two years set aside for schools to apply for) to employ extra staff in the aftermath.

People at the Rodney Green evacuation centre in Napier after Cyclone Gabrielle hit Hawke's Bay.

The report suggested this funding needed to be extended for at least another year, and a permanent climate team be set up within the Ministry of Education.

“One of the strongest themes in interviews was the massive increase in workload the cyclone created. Many raised concerns about the impacts such high workloads were having and questioned whether they were sustainable,” it said.

Teachers quoted anonymously in the report spoke of behavioural problems among students.

“What we found the last term was the kids were wild, it was rough,” one principal said. “We were seeing fighting in the playground, which is something we’ve never seen before.”

The storm had also affected schools’ ability to fundraise in their community.

“We can’t be asking our families for money at the moment when they’ve got their own things to worry about,” another principal said. “Or like, school working bees, you feel guilty asking for help to tidy up this when people have got their own properties they need to be sorting out.”

Others spoke of the emotional toll. “To not have lost anybody in our school community was a miracle. So, on one hand I’m shattered, exhausted,

depleted, and on the other hand I’m trying to give myself the little pep talk, you know?”

A toddler climbing in a playground.

Budget 2023 provided mental wellbeing support for primary and intermediate students through the expansion of the Mana Ake – Stronger for Tomorrow programme into Hawke’s Bay and Tai Rāwhiti.

The report said mental health support “was forthcoming in term one, [but] it began to dry up after this and a general lack of councillors meant that even if the funding was available, support wasn’t always accessible”.

“This programme needs to be continued at the same time as mental health supports are built into ordinary primary school resourcing.”

One principal said: “[We had] mental health services, all sorts, in week three, four, five, in fact probably for the first term. But it’s only now that kids are starting to tell their stories.”

Another said before the cyclone, they had six children referred to a counsellor. Now, they had 22, and the counsellor had no capacity.

Some teachers interviewed were positive about the role of the ministry.

“I’ve gotta take my hat off to them, where during the initial cyclone response I was really impressed by the support we received from the ministry, in terms of additional funding,” one principal said.

Another said: “They [the ministry] were great. They said, right, we’re gonna get this done.”

In a statement, the Ministry of Education said resources “were and still are being provided and a strong connection has been maintained between schools, local councils, Civil Defence and cyclone recovery agencies.

“We recognise the vital roles schools, kura and early learning services (ELS) play in supporting and safe guarding the wellbeing of their students and communities when emergencies or disasters happen.

“The reviews undertaken in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle and the Auckland floods will continue to provide valuable insights and learnings into what can be done better, both at a local and national level.”

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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