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Auckland’s schoolkids have spent another week at home. (Photo: Getty / Design: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONSocietyFebruary 3, 2023

For Auckland’s schoolkids, this week feels eerily familiar

Auckland’s schoolkids have spent another week at home. (Photo: Getty / Design: Tina Tiller)

Those lockdown vibes are back – and maybe they never really went away.

We were supposed to be organised. For a while there, we were. A uniform, purchased across a frenzied weekend dashing between specialist stores, was spread out over our son’s bed. Tags removed, shirts folded, socks in balls, a jacket hanging from a hook. His shorts still had those store-fresh pleats in them.

Multiple online forms had been received, reviewed, debated and checked off. Yes to learning German. Yes to joining the school football, cricket and waterpolo squads. Home economics – that’s cooking, but in old school slang – appears to be gaining in popularity again, so he’s on a waitlist for that one. Apparently he’ll build an electric car to race this term.

Excitement leading up to Tuesday’s big event was high, and nerves were at fever pitch. The first day at high school is a huge moment for everyone. Was he worried? “Eh? Nah,” he’d grunt at me when I gently asked. He’s 12, about to turn 13, so that’s about all we get out of him these days. Except when he’s hungry. Then the grunts get louder.

But I knew how he felt inside. I can still remember my first day at high school: riding there on a bike I worried wasn’t good enough, constantly tugging at my socks that wouldn’t stay at the required knee height, hoping like hell I was in a class with friends from my previous school. Soon, I’d make an entirely new social circle, many of whom I’m still in touch with today.

Tuesday was supposed to be the day my son got to make his own memories. He’d been trading notes, swapping rumours and gags, with his friends via WhatsApp, the same way Wayne Brown does with his tennis grumps. What were they saying? “Eh,” he told me, angling his phone away. “Not much.”

It’s no spoiler to tell you that my son’s first day at high school is still on hold. So’s my daughter first day in year five. Auckland’s absolute drenching, and a recommendation from the secretary for education – since lifted, but still being adhered to by many schools – has meant all of that was a wash out.

Obviously, it was the right call. Auckland is dealing with one of its worst ever natural disasters. I’m not going to argue that kids should return to schools, at least 20 of which have flood damage to sort, just so I can get some work done in peace.

But it does mean some familiar vibes have crept back into routines. My son and daughter are both back home, back chatting to their friends on devices, back demanding more screen time, back marching to the kitchen for more snacks. There have been tears and slammed doors and complaints of boredom. If that sounds eerily familiar, that’s because it is. Clearly, the trauma from the past three years of lockdowns hasn’t cleared.

They won’t say it, but our kids are among the lucky ones. Unlike many around the city, our house is mostly dry. We’re not dealing with slips, collapses, floodwaters or soggy carpet. Aside from a neighbour determined to soundtrack as much of our rainy days as possible with the same three songs – among them the super ironic ‘Thunder’ from Imagine Dragons – we’ve managed to get through the past week relatively OK. Physically speaking, that is.

Mentally, I can’t help but wonder what’s under the surface. Auckland’s schoolkids have been asked to weather a lot over the past three years. In 2020, my son’s final primary school camp was called off because of this new thing called Covid. Thanks to those first periods of lockdown, he and his sister missed many weeks of school, weekends playing with their friends was swapped for time on devices, extracurricular sports became a bounce on the trampoline. Two pairs of brand new football boots that winter were worn for just six games.

In 2021, the same thing happened, but worse. They both missed months of school. At home, we gave up trying to teach them because the arguments became overwhelming. Instead, they helped out with the family business, got really good at iPad art and Minecraft, built many things with Lego, finally destroyed the trampoline, and annoyed each other. My son missed another school camp. My daughter cried every time a lockdown extension was announced.

In 2022, we finally had Covid to deal with. Any sign of a sniffle or snuffle, any small cough or sore throat meant Auckland’s schoolkids were forced to stay home. Some days fewer than half of their classmates were present. Stuck at home, those lockdown vibes would instantly return. Thanks to one bout in March for my son, and a second, for the rest of the family, in July, they missed out on at least a term of school, probably more. We lost count. We didn’t keep a diary, but if we did, it would be a very bleak read.

None of this is unique. Every Auckland parent and their kids have some kind of variation of this story to tell. Perhaps it’s slightly better, hopefully it’s not worse. This year was supposed to be the year that changed. A great summer, followed by a full year of school. And, for my son, that scary and exciting first week of high school he’ll remember all his life. Whether or not that happens next week is up to the weather gods.

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