Do your job – get a swab!

A trailblazing head girl helped rally her Auckland community when Covid-19 reappeared on Valentines Day in 2021.

Do your job – get a swab!

Rhonda Nguyen had only been head girl for a week when Papatoetoe High School became the centre of a Covid-19 outbreak.

She was now the face of the school, fronting media appearances and rallying the community to get tested. “Do your job and get a swab” became the study-body catch-cry, with a pop-up testing station opened on school grounds and a social media campaign running across official and unofficial student communication channels, from Instagram to YouTube.

School principal Vaughan Couillaut was proud of the students' efforts, empowering them to take the lead in the community testing campaign.
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Rhonda Nguyen had only been head girl for a week when Covid came to her school. Photo courtesy of Rhonda Nguyen.

The result was an inspiring school-led drive to bring the entire South Auckland community together.

“Everything was student oriented,” says Rhonda. “We were given a lot of opportunities and we used them reach out, not only to get people tested, but to help families with IT support and food.”

While the experience might have been bonding for the community, less positively it also meant the school got off to a very slow start to the academic year. Public reaction to the positive Covid cases also varied; alongside praise and morning teas sent in by well-wishers, were anonymous death threats.

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Minister of Health Chris Hipkins with school principal Vaughan Couillault and the student leadership team, 2021. The minister visited Papatoetoe High School to acknowledge the school's role in bringing their community together.

“Even before the August lockdown, our students were stressed and frazzled,” says Rhonda. "People couldn’t catch up on missed credits and everyone had Covid fatigue. Some students stopped coming to school and started working as learning slipped into the background or their family's needs took priority."

For Rhonda, the experience was eye opening: "We might all have been going through the same thing, but our circumstances and problems were all very different. That was a learning experience for me.”

Rhonda is now at university studying health sciences with the aim of getting into medicine. And despite 2021 being a challenging year with missed milestone events from graduation to camp, there were also highlights that wouldn’t have come without Covid-19. Meeting prime minister Jacinda Ardern was one of them; not only did the PM personally call to check-in on the student leadership team, she also later visited the school.

“I think the way that the school and our students reached out to each other and the Papatoetoe community, showed that together we are all stronger.

"Covid doesn’t discriminate, so neither should we.”