Caught by surprise

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

The question is not if, but when. Together, we must be better prepared to predict, prevent, detect, assess and effectively respond to pandemics in a highly coordinated fashion. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stark and painful reminder that nobody is safe until everyone is safe.”

Source: World Health Organisation

As NZ experiences another period of COVID-19 level 4 lockdown, I’ve been interested to note the responses I’m seeing across our education system in particular. It’s left me wondering just how much we actually have learned from the lockdown of 2020?

I recall a post I wrote back then titled lessons from lockdown in which I noted several themes and issues that had been identified in various reports focused on the impact of the pandemic on education. Since then I’ve completed a more comprehensive synthesis of national and global reports for the NZ Ministry of Education which I’m hoping will be published by them soon.

A central concern of many of these studies, the international studies in particular, is the need to build system resilience by addressing many of the issues they identify. There’s a good reason for this. Back in 2020 the World Health Organisation reported the likelihood of another two pandemics such as COVID-19 within the lifetime of students currently in school. Add to that the inevitability of school closures as a result of extreme weather events and/or natural disasters, the need to plan forward is well established.

Armed with such knowledge one might have expected that we’d have been better prepared for the eventuality of another lockdown such as the one we now find ourselves in. I need to acknowledge here that there have been steps taken in many schools and by many education leaders to be better prepared. That said, a few of the conversations I’ve had recently highlight that, for many, they were not as prepared as might have been expected. For example…

  • A conversation with a teacher who explained that she was struggling to think of ways to engage her students with their learning during these few days of lockdown as many had left their chromebooks at school.
  • An internal message to staff from the leadership in a national organisation suggesting that the announcement to go into lockdown was unexpected and had taken them by surprise.
  • A TV interview with a principal’s association rep. claiming that the distribution of devices by the MoE for students without them was still not completed.

Granted, the announcement to go into lockdown was made after schools and workplaces had closed for the day, but there had been clear signals given for a week prior that the officials were concerned about the inevitability of such a move having to be made given the increased likelihood of the virus being detected in the community. Besides, we’d already had a year to prepare for such and eventuality. It was simply a matter of when, not if. Even on the day of the announcement, there were clear warnings that such an announcement might be made that evening. This was certainly not unexpected, and should not have been a surprise to anyone.

So why, with a year having passed since the first lockdown and a plethora of research and commentary on how best to be prepared for future events, have we failed to have in place the processes and strategies that could simply be put into action the minute the announcement was made?

  • Where was the school policy (and practice) encouraging students to take devices home with them instead of leaving them at school? Or a national policy allowing the collection and distribution of school-owned devices as an automatic action? Why did all of this take further thinking about after the event?
  • With all of the publicity ahead of the announcement it’s unimaginable that any organisation could claim to be ‘caught by surprise’ by what happened – the surprise more likely reveals their lack of any form of contingency planning to provide an automatic response and ensure continuity of service.
  • And why, a year after the original lockdown, have we not taken the steps necessary to ensure the measures taken at a national level to address the emergency remote learning needs during lockdown are now firmly established as a part of ‘business as usual’? (e.g. provision of devices, internet access, processes for quality assuring 3rd party online content, systems for communicating with students, parents/whānau etc.)

I’d suggest this may be due to two factors

  1. Short termism
    Here in NZ we only experienced a relatively short period of lockdown in 2020, part of which was taken up with school break. The overall impact on learning was relatively minor – the more immediate focus, understandably, was on student and teacher wellbeing, and addressing some of the issues of inequity that were exposed. While there were many initiatives taken to provide content and support for remote/online learning, comparatively few were actually realised to their full potential. The short period of physical school closures (compared with many overseas jurisdictions) meant that coping mechanisms were able to be put in place until the return to regular, in-person settings. The ‘step up’ into genuine, remote learning wasn’t really needed.
  2. The Stable State
    Human nature, it seems, would suggest we demonstrate a bias towards what Donald Schön has called Stable State thinking. The mindset here is ‘if we can just get through this present crisis we’ll soon be able to get back to normal (aka the stable state), with normal being the familiar context of in-person learning activity in classrooms and schools.

Thus, after experiencing just a short period of lockdown, the fact that we had the ability to return to schools and classrooms relatively quickly meant that were weren’t really forced (as individuals, schools or the system) to consider the longer term and what might happen in the future. For the majority of people, things did return to normal.

This second period of level 4 lockdown then serves as a sobering reminder that we need to be exercising the future-focused part of our brains. The fact is that, as Schön warned in the 1970s, there is no such thing as a ‘stable state’ any longer.

In addition to being focused on meeting the needs we have in the present, we must be reading the signals, noting the signs and taking action to ensure we have the systems, processes, policies and resources in place to demonstrate the level of resilience we need at a personal, local and national level.

Ideas for action…

Based on what we learned from lockdown, what the research revealed and what we know is needed, the following actions should be considered as part of building resilience:


  • make greater use of an online environment such as and LMS, MS Teams, Google Classroom etc to store and manage documents/content that can be accessed by students regardless of whether they are at home or at school
  • introduce the use of webinar platforms (e.g. Zoom, Teams, G-Meet) as part of regular classroom activity, so students are familiar with their use and functionality
  • utilise some form of home-school platform/app (e.g. see-saw, educa etc.) to communicate regularly with parents/whānau and to engage them in supporting their child’s learning
  • encourage students to take their device home with them at the end of each school day
  • plan for an online component (content, activity, communication etc) as part regular curriculum planning wherever possible
  • regularly use a range of online tools as appropriate for learning tasks in the classroom – or remotely. (e.g. collaborative documents, quizzes, brainstorming, slide-shows etc.) Focus in particular on those that encourage collaborative activity.


  • model effective online behaviours by using collaborative documents to keep notes from meetings and to share important information for staff
  • ensure all staff are provided with a teacher laptop and any additional peripherals (camera, headset etc) that will ensure good quality interactions when using it as a communication device – at school or at home
  • build collections of digital resources to support curriculum provision – either the resources themselves or links to resources approved by staff
  • establish patterns of regular online communications with parents/whānau, including regular sharing of progress and samples of work
  • ensure all staff, students and parents/whānau are aware of their responsibilites regarding cyber-safety and online behaviour


  • establish a national database of student details, fed dynamically from school systems, to enable immediate access to data to identify areas of need
  • enable unified access to and data sharing between different online platforms and systems to ensure ease of access and use
  • address the concerns regarding inequitable access to and use of digital devices by ensuring provision in areas of need
  • establish process for accrediting 3rd party online content to ensure safe access and use by students at home and school
  • provide quality PLD for teachers to as they embrace online/hybrid pedagogical approaches
  • improve online assessment tools and approaches, providing alternatives to traditional exams and in-person forms of summative assessment
  • consider making participation in some form of online learning a requirement for all NZ students

Have a plan

By doing the things listed above the issue of transferring to working remotely is less likely to catch you by surprise. These patterns of working and the supporting infrastructure and systems will already be a part of ‘business as usual’. The research showed that this was the case for a number of schools in the last lockdown, but certainly not the majority.

With that sort of capability in place, the other key thing to do is have a plan for what you will do when circumstances require periods of school closure – be that another pandemic, weather event, natural disaster etc. If your school/kura is already operating in a digital environment, using digital tools to bridge the gap between school and home, and enabling collaboration between and among students, teachers and parents/whānau online then this will be pretty straight forward.

There’s a growing amount of information available to help you prepare such a plan – including the experience of other schools and educators. A good place to start might be to check out the resources and recommendations on the MoE’s Learning From Home website.

A well thought through “resilience plan” that is accessible to and understood by the whole school community will enable the smooth transition to remote learning, no matter how short the notice period. This plan should focus on two things in particular:

  • The continuity of learning – including ways of ensuring equitable access, online collaboration strategies, online assessment, access to online content and platforms etc.
  • The wellbeing of staff and students – including managing expectations, digital safety, support networks etc.

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2 thoughts on “Caught by surprise

  1. After the first lockdown, the revision back to stable state thinking was so strong, that we ploughed on without giving ourselves the chance to take stock and reflect on the experience we had. By the end of 2020 we were so exhausted and drained we really did not celebrate the remarkable year of 2020.

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