Covid’s decade long impact on education

Damon Salesa

27 Jan 2023

VC Damon Salesa

After two years of a global pandemic, 2022 was both a relief and a challenge.

In a sense, the worst of the epidemic was behind us. Yet at the same time, the worst of it befell us.

Auckland felt the brunt of the epidemic, experienced lockdowns the longest, and experienced most of the early cases.

Slowly the pandemic is becoming endemic: we have learned to accommodate this challenge through our resilience and strength. But as we do this, let us also remember the educational impact has only just begun.

The release of NCEA results this week will be only the tip of the Covid legacy iceberg.

In my mind, I have the future careers of New Zealand’s 8-year-olds. In their short time at school, they have experienced an enormously disrupted education.

They do not know what normal schooling used to look like.

I say used to look like, as we all know something has changed, and we have to both learn what has and lead on what should be.

The lost learning of the last three years is characterised by powerful inequities. While many were able to thrive remotely or online, many did not.

Those disadvantaged already, who did not have safe, warm, or spacious homes, quality internet and their own devices have been disproportionately impacted. Many were already experiencing disadvantages in education.

As the father of two teenagers, a university vice-chancellor, and someone close to several schools, I have seen the deep impacts on our future students. This has a long, powerful effect.

There has been disconnection, disruption, and removal of sociality, fun, and the cocurricular from learning.

I worry about university student numbers, deeply. But I worry about students more, and I worry that those who would be most transformed by learning may not have the opportunity for university education and the resulting potential to change their own lives and with them the prospects of our communities and whānau.

Learner Success Credits are not the same as learning, and we are in our third year of LSCs.

Students who experienced up to three years of NCEA in a Covid and post-Colvid environment are of immediate concern.

The disadvantages faced by students will emerge at the national, and institutional level too. The institutions and teachers who disproportionately educate and support those most disadvantaged — whether schools or tertiary institutions — are those most vulnerable in these turbulent times, losing students and funding at exactly the time they are needed most.

And all of this is unlikely to pass quickly.

Two US observers recently noted the scale of “lost learning” was so large, and its impacts so wide and deep, that it called for a Moon-shot. Instead, they thought the response in the US was that of sending up a few bottle rockets.

Aotearoa New Zealand, if we are honest, does not yet have a plan to cope with this generational impact. Not even a bottle rocket.

We are losing the opportunity to educate and transform vast sections of our future generation. It deeply concerns me that we have, as a nation, accepted this largely by not noticing.

It is bad for our nation, for our whānau, and for our city.

At the heart of our university’s vision is to be a place where talent can find opportunity, and where all students can reach their potential.

Over the past three years, this mission got much harder, and it won’t get easier any time soon. Not if we keep students at the centre of our view.

Whether they left school to work at Countdown in 2020, whether they got disillusioned with learning and are about to take a gap year, or whether they are a brilliant student who needs an educational context that offers awhi and manaakitanga to make them an exceptional researcher – if we cannot get opportunities to all of New Zealand’s young people it may well be in education as much as health where we see the longest lasting of Covid’s effects.

This article first appeared in the New Zealand Herald

Read more about Professor Damon Salesa, AUT's Vice-Chancellor.