Covid restrictions mean a different look for Polyfest celebration

The annual Polyfest cultural competition is underway in Auckland.

However, Covid-19 restrictions have meant that the event has taken on a different look from its usual cheering crowds. While the performers are live on stage, their audience is largely viewing online.

Crowd capacity limits and outdoor mask requirements are being dropped from 4 April. However, Polyfest organisers say that it's too late for them to change from the plans they put in place under the previous set of restrictions.

Papatoetoe High School teacher, Mikaela Bayly, said she is just thankful the event went ahead.

"The fact that we still managed to have so many students involved and perform, considering more than half of our team has been in isolation in the last three weeks, it was really fun and exciting," Bayly said.

The event is the largest of its kind in the world and in pre-Covid times boasted crowds in the tens of thousands.

This year students have been performing to cameras while their friends and families have been huddling around phones, computers, and televisions to watch them.

"It was definitely a different vibe to normal, usually I am sitting right up the front like right close to them jumping up and down screaming for them and it was really really different," Bayly said.

In 2019, the final day of Polyfest was cancelled due to the March 15 terror attack. The 2020 event had to be cancelled just two days prior to the opening pōwhiri taking place, due to Covid-19 restrictions on mass gatherings. Last year the event was pushed back by a month but still managed to go ahead.

This year the event can be viewed online only.

Avondale College Deputy Principal Brenda McNaughton said students have overcome many challenges to be at Polyfest.

"There is definitely a feeling of carrying a torch for those who, through no fault of their own, are not able to celebrate this year. All of our different groups feel that keenly, that they can go along to celebrate and carry that torch for communities that can't have their voice at Polyfest this year."

Students have been pouring their hearts out in song and dance.

Papatoetoe High School student Mercy Uo is one of the hundreds of students unable to perform this year due to Covid-19. However, she is still supporting those who are.

"All the other cultures are all beautiful - dances and tradition, and it has been really nice to see everyone expressing their heart on the stage, and that is what I love about Polyfest."

She said not dancing has been really disappointing, "Covid has been a real pain, especially stopping events like Polyfest. Earlier this week I also had Covid too."

Performers can earn NCEA credits, but Covid-19 restrictions meant some students had missed out on these.

Polyfest Director Seiuli Terri Leo-Mauu is pushing for that to change.

"We are looking forward to working with NZQA, making those credits more standardised and more generalized for young people to access when they take the stage or when they access it from school," she said.

Thousands of hours have gone into making the event happen while maintaining the health and safety of performers.

Mikaela Bayly said it has been tough for schools but teachers have been pushing through, out of a passion for their students' success.

"It was a really really stressful process, it always is, even without the lockdowns and Covid and isolation, regardless of that all the hours and that it just pays off in this day, where they have so much joy and excitement, creating all of these precious moments of high school.

"I am very proud," Bayly said.

Polyfest performers acknowledge that it has been a tough year so far, but this event has given students a reason to celebrate.