By Hayden Maskell, Marketing and Communication Manager, REAP Wairarapa
REAPs across the country are deeply connected with their communities, and the Covid-19 lockdown presented a significant challenge. With rural communities especially affected by the isolation, the 13 REAPs managed to quickly find inspiration and innovation.

For many people, the most significant challenge was in having children home. All 13 REAPs actively sought ways to help parents in their time of need, by connecting schools, educators, parents and children with useful resources and activities.

Of course, home-schooling wasn’t the only significant change to result from the lockdown. It meant a dramatic shift to video conferencing at all levels, including adult community education, job applications, health appointments, and more. Through it all, REAPs around the country worked tirelessly to lead their communities through uncertainty.

Tutors step it up a notch
Adult community education has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 lockdown and social distancing rules, but some tutors have worked harder than ever to keep groups together.

WestREAP’s Art4Me tutor Kate Buckley spent lockdown keeping in constant contact with her three learner groups, using every tool and channel possible to ensure the quality of their learning stayed high. Not all learners have internet access, and so Kate made it a priority to call every single learner at least once a week and catch up with them.

She set up a website for sharing work and got her learners to send her finished or in-progress pieces to display online. WestREAP also included the work in social media posts and their newsletter, ensuring the artwork was seen and shared.

For many adult learners, their regular classes have been their main or only social outlet; the continuation of their learning was about not just art lessons but staying connected with others at an especially isolating time.

Social media and social learning
Southern REAP were quick adopters of social media during the lockdown and made a conscious decision to explore how Facebook could benefit their community.

With schooling the most significant challenge for many parents, Southern REAP used Facebook in a unique way: up-skilling and reassuring parents.

Neuroscientist and educator Kathryn Berkett had already been locked in to run parenting worshops in 2020, so Southern REAP reached out and asked her to share videos aimed directly at parents. These resources were shared on the Southern REAP Facebook page, and proved popular with principals and parents, reaching over 1400 people. They also shared video content from Parenting Place, Nigel Latta, Te Karere, Nathan Wallis, and even other REAPs, such as Central Otago REAP’s content on creating routines to make lockdown easier for children and parents.

Responding to community need is a REAP strength, but the Covid-19 situation meant shifting gear with remarkable speed. For much of the community, the changes to daily lives presented enormous upheaval, and Southern REAP (along with other REAPs around the country) made significant, rapid changes to meet these needs, helping educate parents and teachers on not just coping but thriving under the new circumstances.

Now on video
Many REAPs embraced video technology, but Central Otago REAP stepped it up by launching a whole new site. The team developed a new platform to encourage people to learn, offering a range of tutorials on their site. Staff have developed tutorials, read stories for Early Childhood and presented footage from previous U3A series held in Alexandra. New series continue to be added weekly, and the setup has the potential to last well into the future as an online learning platform.

Central Otago REAP also started using new technology with Adobe Spark, creating the digital Lockdown Connector Newsletter, which not only aimed to keep the community in the loop but to share helpful resources.

While videos and online learning will never replace traditional learning completely, great strides have been made to ensure that distance and isolation are no longer barriers to opportunity.

Zooming through work
Youth employment programmes have often relied heavily on one-on-one coaching and individualised support, and programme coordinators across the country immediately recognised the barriers created by the lockdown. REAP Marlborough’s community education organiser Ailsa Carey says the Youth Employability Programme made a successful shift to video conferencing.

“I have never run this programme via Zoom…I had barely been on it,” she says. “But we had six youth jump on our first call, and three weeks later…the same six youths attend every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. They’ve completed five modules in the Youth Employment Programme book.”

While the numbers were down slightly from those expected for the face-to-face course, they were also significantly higher than expected – and, significantly, there was a 100% retention rate. This meant the work could be efficient and effective, and youth all connected in meaningful ways, becoming more confident to share their ideas in the new context.

There are already plans in motion to secure work experience and placements as the country’s alert levels drop, but Ailsa says the most interesting thing she uncovered during the course was that, for the youth involved, the video meetings were as much about social connection as anything else.

“Something I noticed in speaking more in-depth each time with these youth is that none have a ‘tribe’ at the moment,” she says. “I think this YEP has provided more than an employment programme, and been a protective factor in their lives.”

To stay connected, get connected
REAP Wairarapa identified a significant barrier to online learning: internet connectivity. Many families in Wairarapa’s residential and isolated rural areas lack broadband internet, with both cost and network access significant barriers. REAP Wairarapa worked with Skinny Jump, a low-cost prepaid broadband service for eligible homes.

The partnership with Skinny Jump aligned neatly with the REAP values and mission, including the eligibility criteria: Having school-aged children at home; or people looking for work; or new New Zealanders with English as a second language; or seniors.

Caring for the more vulnerable sectors of a community is a REAP speciality, especially the provision of access to quality education. Skinny Jump allows people to connect with 30GB of data for a monthly fee of $5.00; this, coupled with the government’s rollout of devices for students, provided families with a great deal of stress relief and access to education.

It was also great for those wanting to access REAP Wairarapa’s own online courses, including the Learn Te Reo Māori through Waiata. This was the first REAP Wairarapa ACE course to be delivered entirely by Zoom, and while latency presented challenges for group singing, the exercise proved the potential of digital and video resources for future courses.

While the impact of COVID-19 on rural communities will continue to be felt for some time, REAPs around the country have shown the power of innovation, creativity and resilience. Through video learning, social media connection and community development initiatives, REAPs have not only continued to work for their communities but to expand their reach. There are promising signs that this work might just be helping rural communities do more than just survive the crisis, and to thrive in the rebuild.