Vaughan Couillault, Papatoetoe High School principal in the eye of the Covid storm

On Valentine’s Day morning, Vaughan Couillault and his wife went for a walk on the beach.

“Vanessa and I are fortunate,” says the Papatoetoe High School principal.

“We live in Beachlands and we can walk around to Maraetai on a lovely little coastal walk, flop down at our favourite cafe and munch our breakfast.

“We had just done that on Valentine’s Day. At about 11.30am when we got back, I received a phone call from the Ministry of Health.”

He guessed that it was Covid. A Year 9 student and her parents had tested positive for the virus. Dr Ashley Bloomfield planned to announce it at 1.45pm.

“Between 11.45 and 1.15, I had communications from Auckland Regional Public Health around, ‘This is how you’re going to word it.’ So I had a release that I was able to send out to families at 1.15pm,” he says.

“My wife said to my kids: ‘You have 15 minutes if you need anything from your dad because you’re probably not going to be able to see him or talk to him for another week.’ And that’s how things transpired.”

In fact for three weeks now, Couillault has been the public face of the “Valentine’s Day cluster” – standing at the school gate as students and their families queued for Covid tests, updating families with the fast-changing health advice, organising students’ online learning, and constantly answering calls and emails from students, families, staff, officials and the media.

“Between February 14 and 28, I sent in excess of 70,000 text messages from my phone,” he says.

He has taken calls from Bloomfield, Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern thanking him for leading his community through the trauma.

Bloomfield said he “provided his community with the reassurance they needed at a time of high and unexpected stress”. Hipkins described him as “a model of leadership”.

Principals’ Federation president Perry Rush, perhaps with an eye on Couillault being about to take over as president of the Secondary Principals’ Association, wrote in his weekly newsletter: “Thank you, Vaughan. You have exemplified the strong and authoritative leadership that from time to time is required of principals.”

A son of Papatoetoe

Unusually for school principals, Couillault’s roots in his community go deep. He grew up in Old Papatoetoe, attended Papatoetoe South Primary and Kedgley Intermediate, and was head boy of Papatoetoe High in 1988. His mother served on the high school board.

He returned to Papatoetoe High for his first five years out of teachers’ college, and again as associate principal from 2008 to 2012, before returning finally as principal in 2016.

“It’s part of me, my tūrangawaewae,” he says.

Some of his closest friends are old schoolmates. When he and Vanessa recently sold their house to move to Beachlands, the real estate agent was an old school friend.

He was actually born in London, 50 years ago this May. But his mother came from Matamata and brought her new family back to New Zealand 18 months after Vaughan was born.

His father’s family came originally from France. “My paternal grandfather was adopted by a French family as they were immigrating to the UK when he was an infant.”

Couillault inherited the European passion for football, playing soccer for the Winfield Superclub and refereeing soccer games until two years ago.

His father was a business development manager and Couillault himself did a commerce degree at Auckland University, planning to become an accountant.

He changed his mind when a Papatoetoe High School teacher, who was also a housemaster at Dilworth School, offered him a job as a live-in tutor at Dilworth in his first year at university. He lived there for the next eight years, first as a tutor and then as a housemaster.

The time, 1989-96, was when many of the events were alleged to have taken place that have led to sexual abuse charges being laid against several Dilworth staff members, but Couillault says, “There was nothing that was apparent to me.”

Instead, he was inspired by the philanthropic Christian school’s philosophy of “transforming lives” of boys “in straitened circumstances”.

“I realised that I wanted to go to teachers’ college and become a teacher,” he says.

He taught commerce. His NCEA Level 2 Accounting Workbooks, published from 2003 to 2009, are still available online.

“I was quite ambitious,” he says. “I was going to be a principal by 35.”

He moved from Papatoetoe High to become head of commerce at Mt Roskill Grammar, then deputy principal at Manurewa High School, associate principal at Pakuranga College and then associate principal at Papatoetoe High.

He was actually 41 when he got his first principal’s job at Manurewa’s James Cook High School in 2012, still young to lead a school of 1400 mainly Māori and Pasifika students.

The school was part of Russell Bishop’s Te Kotahitanga programme, which aimed to help teachers understand and relate to Māori students as Māori. Couillault says it was a “no-brainer” to join the next stage of the programme.

He credited Te Kotahitanga for a jump in the school’s Year 11 NCEA Level 1 pass rate from 47 per cent of participating students in 2012 to 95 per cent in 2014.

A 2016 review by the NZ Qualifications Authority found that the school had broken the rules by withdrawing students who tried for NCEA standards but were marked “not achieved”, making it look as if they had not even tried.

But Couillault says this happened after he left in February 2016.

“That particular incident occurred without my knowledge,” he says.

“All I did there was what I’m doing here [at Papatoetoe] – I introduced a summer school.

“If kids needed additional opportunities to get this particular standard, I just created a summer school programme before and after school till the end of February. That’s pretty much what everybody does now.”

He says most schools have now stopped enrolling students in every NCEA unit that they sign up for anyway.

“Schools tend not to enter students into standards until they are ready to be assessed, as opposed to entering them at the beginning of the year and taking them out.”

A hyper-diverse community

When Couillault attended Papatoetoe High in the 1980s, it was predominantly European.

“It was fairly homogeneous,” he says.

That has changed completely. Only 3 per cent of the school’s 1430 students last July were European; 50 per cent were Asian, 26 per cent Pasifika and 17 per cent Māori.

“We are hyper-diverse now,” he says.

“The key shift in demographics occurred in the early 2000s with a couple of coups in Fiji, when there was quite an influx of migrants from that part of the world who settled near mosques and temples that were already established.”

The school roll slightly exaggerates the population change. In the 2018 census, 21 per cent of people in the school zone were still European, but most of their teenagers must be taking the train out to higher-decile schools elsewhere.

Conversely, Couillault estimates that 30 to 40 per cent of his roll is Muslim, based on things such as the amount of halal food prepared for school events. But only 6 per cent of the school zone population is Muslim, so the school appears to be drawing Muslim students from a wider area.

Couillault is still applying the key ideas of Te Kotahitanga. Relationships are all-important.

“Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, is a line I remember from Te Kotahitanga,” he says.

“The challenge of teaching is to make the learning happen through meaningful relationships and culturally responsive pedagogy.

“It’s making sure that your learning environment doesn’t require the students to leave their language, culture and identity at the door, that they are empowered to bring their language, culture and identity into the classroom, that their prior knowledge is acknowledged, and that they feel they belong.”

Muslim teachers run a Friday prayer group for Muslim students. A Christian teacher runs a Christian prayer group on another day.

“We try and celebrate everything we can,” Couillault says. Not just Christmas and Easter; also Diwali, Matariki, the Lantern Festival and Eid.

“I have been invited to the Iftar prayer for Eid,” he says. “I’m very comfortable walking into the mosque in Ōtāhuhu because I know the people. We grieved with them when Christchurch happened.”

Leading through trauma

Papatoetoe High School was initially closed for two days when that first Valentine’s Day case was found and all staff and students were asked to get tested for Covid.

That advice was superseded later the same night when Cabinet imposed level 3 restrictions across Auckland for three days, shutting all schools except for children who could not be supervised at home.

On February 17 two more students tested positive and the school was closed for the rest of the week.

The next day the school posted a notice in seven languages on its Facebook page announcing that students would have to show proof of a negative Covid test result before returning to school.

Important COVID Update (In English,Te reo Māori, Vietnamese, Samoan, Chinese, Tongan and Hindi) English: Further to…

By February 22, when the school reopened, 41 students had not yet returned negative test results.

“They included some who tested early on February 14. It needed to be from February 15 because of that five-day incubation period,” Couillault says.

“Some were not able to leave younger siblings they were looking after. Some hadn’t got around to it.

“There were a few people going, ‘No, I don’t want to have a test but I’m happy to isolate for 14 days.’

“From what I can gather, between Auckland Regional Public Health and us, I think there was one by the middle of last week. Not one student returned who had not had a negative test.”

The school reopened for only a day and a bit. On February 23 it was closed again after another student tested positive, and all students and staff were asked to get retested.

Dear Parents, Students and Staff Members One COVID-19 case at Papatoetoe High School Another student has tested…

Communicating all the changes to families was challenging. The school collects email and cellphone details when students enrol, usually for two parents or caregivers, and every student also has a school email address. But it’s hard to keep them updated.

“Every time we send a text you get some back that are not delivered,” Couillault says.

In normal times staff would follow up to find people’s new numbers, but there simply hasn’t been time to do that while constantly sending out new updates.

Language was also an issue for at least two of the families who caught Covid.

“I understand from Auckland Regional Public Health that English was not spoken in those homes. However, the students that we are dealing with engage confidently at school,” Couillault says.

He says the mothers in the two families who went for a walk together did not break the rules deliberately.

“The families we are talking about are good people,” he says.

When Ardern said the families faced “the full judgment of the entire nation” and National’s Chris Bishop called for rule-breakers to be fined, Couillault pleaded for understanding.

“Until you have walked in the shoes of somebody, you don’t know what they are experiencing,” he says.

“These people are remorseful, they are down, they are sick – they have got Covid.

“I understand the frustration, the view that they should have done this or they shouldn’t have done that, but it doesn’t make them bad people. It makes them human. And our job as a member of the community is to support those in need when people are in need, irrespective of the causes.”

Couillault has received his share of nasty emails. One said: “I can’t believe you are defending these people who didn’t get tested, and I hope you suffer like my friend who is going through chemotherapy.”

“But for every email like that, I’ve had 30 saying you’re amazing,” he says.

“The depth of empathy that has been shown to my school has made me really proud of the community that I serve.”

Where to now?

Couillault says the language issues for the Covid-infected families point to a need for more comprehensive translation of health messages.

“Maybe the contact tracing units in Auckland and Wellington and so on need to have access to translators who can work at pace,” he suggests.

Meanwhile, barring any new cases, Papatoetoe High School will reopen on Monday. In fact, it has been open all this week under level 3 conditions for students who have no one to look after them at home – one solitary student, as it turned out.

Students do not need to show negative test results to return this time because they have all been in isolation for more than the virus’ five-day incubation period.

Laptops were distributed on Monday to students who needed them, and teachers have kept on teaching online. But Couillault wants his students back in class.

“Online stuff can do a little bit, but teaching really is a contact sport,” he says.

He knows recovery won’t be easy.

“If you’ve ever been for a run and stopped for a rest or to tie your shoelaces, it’s hard to get going again,” he says.

“There’s the motivation side. There’s the wellbeing side if people have experienced distress. There’s the apathy side: ‘Oh, what’s the point?’

“And even if the family is not suffering distress, if the parents are still working – humans are social creatures, and if they get isolated too long and lose a bit of the social skills, there can be an issue going forward.

“But the easiest way to learn to ride a bike again is to get back on the bike. The sooner you get back into the routine, the easier it all becomes.”

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