A small Auckland high school is at the centre of the largest cluster of Covid-19 cases in the country. What happened at Marist College? Kirsty Johnston reports.
In the beginning, Marist leadership thought they were being paranoid.
A teacher at the Catholic girls' college at the leafy Auckland suburb of Mt Albert was off work sick, and her symptoms seemed similar to the emerging coronavirus.
At that point, there were only a handful of cases in the country, and all were linked to overseas travel. But the teacher hadn't been overseas, or in contact with anyone who'd recently returned home.
But to satisfy themselves the school was safe, leadership supported the teacher to get the test. Her doctor had to do the referral. It was a bit of a push back then, two weeks and a lifetime ago. Clinicians weren't testing people without the overseas criteria - and eventually the teacher was swabbed on Thursday, March 19.
Marist College has just 750 pupils - tiny compared to nearby Mt Albert Grammar on 3000, or most other high schools in Auckland. Across the road is Marist Primary, and together the two schools make a tight-knit community.
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Like many schools, on Friday March 20, principal Raechelle Taulu sent a note advising what would happen if a case was confirmed. It was likely the school would close temporarily, she said, to allow time for close-contact checking and a careful clean of the school.
She also sent a newsletter, advising parents to stick to routines as the world changed around them.
"In times of constant change, teenage girls can become extremely anxious. Having structure provides stability amidst all the unknowns in their lives," it said.
"Our goal at Marist College over the upcoming weeks and months will be to remain as routine and structured as possible for as long as we possibly can."
March 22, 2020 - one case
Board of Trustees chairman Stephen Dallow was on his way to a theatre rehearsal at the school when he got the phone call from Taulu. The teacher was positive, she said.
Dallow and Taulu immediately met at the school. The rest of the senior leadership team arrived soon after. They were supported by the Ministry of Education, who were in touch with the Ministry of Health, to work out a plan.
"I must say it felt like a long afternoon getting everything organised," Dallow said. "But we felt extremely supported."
At just before 6pm, the school texted parents. "Dear Families. Marist College will close a minimum of 3 days starting tomorrow due to a confirmed case of Covid-19," it said. More information would be sent later, via email.
The parents then had to tell their children. One Year 13 student told the Herald that at first, she felt shocked, but she knew she was safe at home with her family.
However, once she got on social media, that feeling changed.
"Talking to all of my cohort, many were panicking that they would catch it," she said. "And having time off school would interfere with internals, UE, scholarships and all the upcoming fun events."
She said the seniors also felt a responsibility to manage the wellbeing of the younger students as they heard many of the younger girls were very scared they would get sick, which added pressure. They began discussing among themselves what they could do to help.
When the email came that night, the school said it anticipated it would re-open in three days. It assured parents the infected person, and her whole household, was now in self-isolation.
"They are being supported at home and will only return to school after they have completed their isolation period and are well."
The school decided not to name the teacher, a much-loved member of staff who had been at the school for up to 10 years.
The public health service was communicating with the person's close contacts, they said, and those people would also be required to self-isolate at home for 14 days and watch for symptoms.
Taulu told the Herald the school's priority was to "wrap around" the teacher to make sure she had all the support she needed.
"Marist is an amazing community so I know that at the end of the day we will all look out for each other."
Meanwhile, Marist Primary School also decided to close immediately, because of familial links between the two schools.
March 24, 2020 - three cases.
By Tuesday, contact tracers had identified those most likely at risk and several had already been tested. Two new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed.
In a letter to parents, Taulu said all staff and students at the college were now considered close contacts.
"This means that families need to assume that their daughter has been in contact with a teacher or student that has Covid-19. However, this does not mean that your daughter will get the virus, yet we have a duty of care to inform you," the email said.
Confusingly, officials still hadn't worked out where the initial teacher caught the virus from, or if indeed she was the school's patient zero. If she hadn't been connected to a traveller, it was possible she was one of the country's first two cases of community transmission.
There was another problem. The teacher had recently attended a conference held for all the schools in the Auckland Central Catholic Schools Kāhui Ako (Community of Learning). Contact tracers set about contacting all of those schools.
March 25, 2020 - five cases.
At the daily media briefing, director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield introduced the country to a new concept - a Covid 19 "cluster". With five cases now attached to Marist College, it was one of two in the country, the other being a cattle conference in Queenstown.
By now, the school had begun to suspect the main point of transmission for the virus might have been the staffroom.
"You've got a lot of people in a small space there," Dallow said. "It is a very small staff room. And they say if you're within a metre of someone for more than 15 mins, you're more exposed."
He said that seemed a more likely scenario than transmission in classrooms, which were more spread out, or the Family Festival the week before. However, it was still guess work, he said.
In good news, Auckland Catholic Diocese Vicar for Education Catherine Ryan told the Herald that health officials had determined that the Marist teacher was not infectious when at the conference.
There was very little risk to the other attendees, she said.
"Schools are following the advice and guidelines of the Ministry of Health."
That night, at 11.59pm, the whole country went into lockdown. Marist was no longer alone.
March 26, 2020 - 11 cases
The mood within the school community was beginning to get tense. It was confirmed that principal Taulu had tested positive for the virus. There were now seven teachers and four students - mostly seniors - with the infection.
Some younger students in particular, and some parents, were agitating for the initial teacher - and anyone else who was sick - to be named. Dallow reiterated they would not be naming anyone.
Under the guidance of board member and television presenter Mihingarangi Forbes, Dallow also spoke directly to the school community via a video on Facebook.
"We've had an outbreak in our school. We didn't choose this. It's reality," he said. He explained the need for privacy, and said there was no need to breach it.
He also addressed criticisms, saying they had received a lot of harsh messages from those angry about the infection.
"We are sorry that this has happened to your daughters and to our Marist community, Dallow said. "Please be assured that we could not have predicted that this would happen. We don't know where the first Covid-19 case came from and we may never know."
Dallow said everyone needed to be prepared for more cases.
"Senior management and the board are with you. We are just as scared as you. But we must be kind. We ask you to stay home to avoid the spread. We will get through this."
Dallow was putting on a brave face, but behind the scenes the board were under intense pressure. Not only were parents angry and frightened, but everyone felt a deep sense of injustice.
"There are people who don't understand why it's chosen our community and Mt Albert," he told the Herald. "Perhaps it would be easier if we knew why, but we can't."
After the video, some of the agitation seemed to abate. Parents posted in support of the school, saying it was doing a good job. But they also revealed they too were under stress.
"I know that some of us have already experienced a witch hunt from other schools demanding to know who the students are," one mother wrote.
Other parents reported they were struggling to get tested for the virus even if they said they were from Marist. One mother of a Year 10 student told the Herald that although she had symptoms, she was turned away by officials.
"I was too disappointed with this. Meantime, I really worry about the whole Marist College community."
March 27, 2020 - 16 cases
As the number of cases continued to grow, so did the public scrutiny of the school.
First - fears that two more schools may have been at risk arose in an email from Mt Albert Grammar to parents - saying students from Marist may have ridden on buses with their students while infectious.
It said a "handful of students" from Lynfield College and Mt Albert Grammar were now considered casual contacts. Students who had ridden on nine Kiwi Coach bus rides last week were now at risk of contracting coronavirus.
"While this will be concerning for you, Auckland Regional Public Health Service considers most of the students on the buses to be at low risk," he said.
As this news spread, so did backlash online. Nasty comments were posted to social media by students from neighbouring schools, deriding the infected Marist pupils.
Dallow spoke to the other school principals and said the bullying was being "dealt with swiftly". School counsellors were trying to organise further support, he said.
But at the same time, the school was dealing with reports that some students had breached self-isolation.
On the nightly news, Dallow said he'd reminded students that such behaviour was not to happen.
"We had a few contacts from concerned parents that they knew some of the
teenagers were meeting or heading out with their family to do the grocery shopping," he told TVNZ.
"We reminded our community it is a case of staying home and we want to make sure they understand the importance of staying home at this time."
The public reacted swiftly. One former student went so far as to write on the school's Facebook page that she was embarrassed.
"I never thought I would say this but after I heard of the Marist College students flouting the lockdown rules on the news this evening I felt ashamed to be a Marist old girl," she said.
The school sent a note to try to calm nerves. "We know that this is a time of great uncertainty. We know many people are feeling anxious, stressed, worried and scared," it said.
Just as things felt like they couldn't get any worse, Dallow got a call from an unknown number. He picked up, to be greeted by the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
"She wanted to pass on her best wishes to our community. She knows you are all nervous and worried but we will get through this. Her heart is very much with us at Marist," he wrote. "It's been a big week and a tough one. I pray you all get some down time this weekend."
At that moment, Dallow appreciated the call more than the Prime Minister could have known.
March 28, 2020 - 18 cases
On Saturday morning, parents awoke to an email from the principal. Taulu had sent the message just before midnight.
"Thank you so much for your prayers and well wishes not only for myself but for the entire Marist community," she said. "I am very lucky to have mild symptoms and amazing support. The last five days has been extremely challenging for us all."
Taulu revealed until then, she had been unable to email from home, until IT were able to upgrade the student management system. She thanked everyone for their patience, and said from next week the school would return to a "more private" platform of communication.
She reminded families they needed to be in self-isolation until April 5, and ended her newsletter with with a prayer.
Mary, your love strengthens us and brings us peace. Our Lady, Health of the Sick, pray for us.
March 29, 2020 - cases 22
Keeping track of the cases had now become extremely difficult. The school knew of those in its immediate community - staff, students and some other adults. But they didn't know everyone, because people weren't obliged to tell them if they tested positive. Only the Ministry of Health knew the totals.
Dallow posted the numbers to Facebook. Later that day, they also posted a message from microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles.
"I want to say to you all that this is nobody's fault. The virus doesn't care who we are, people will become infected and spread it and they don't realise it," she said.
"Take care of each other. I know it's going to be frightening not knowing if your family is going to be next. We will get through this but please be kind to each other."
March 30, 2020 - cases 47
Wiles' calming message came just at the right time. On Monday, Bloomfield announced that Marist was the largest cluster in the country, with 47 cases.
Taulu and her staff knew 26 of those, but not the rest. She spent the day phoning all staff and students who had tested positive directly to check on their wellbeing. By now, many were much better, but she said the school was trying to give its 14 affected staff members the time and privacy needed to return to full health.
Parents should not expect online learning packages before the end of the school holidays.
"We pray that you are all taking care of each other from a distance," she said.
By now, the Year 13s had set up an Instagram account for the students, to try to keep everyone's spirits up. The student spoken to by the Herald said it had been an extremely unsettled time.
"I found myself very anxious that my whole way life has shifted and adapted to this virus and it's very overwhelming," she said. "Because as Marist is a small school, I know most of the cases and it's so sad to think people I know are victims of the nasty virus."
Seeing the school on the news was frightening, she said. As well as that, her friends from Marist and other schools were disappointed that their last year of school would no longer be the same.
"Special school events such as balls and cultural events that they would be doing for the last time can no longer happen."
But, like everyone, they just wanted to stop the spread of the virus, she said.
March 31, 2020 - cases 48
Only one new case was added overnight to Tuesday, which was a relief for Dallow, Taulu, and the rest of the board.
"We are hoping it will quieten down now," Dallow said. "It's been 10 days, and that's usually the period where symptoms would appear."
It had been a trying time, he said, and many in the community - including the board - kept returning to the same question: why us?
"As I said, we may never know. We still don't know where the virus came from," he said.
Although it has been trying, he said, in some ways the school - with its small role, experienced board, and Catholic values - was lucky in that it was well-equipped to deal with a crisis.
"And we have a great leader and amazing principal who has fallen to the illness herself and is still working to lead the community," he said. "I hope we are showing the way forward."