COVID-19: Children need protection too

There is a serious risk many children will come out of this crisis worse off, unless important measures are undertaken.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young peoples’ lives should not be discounted. An entire generation of children and teenagers are set to miss out on potentially months of everyday life activities, including attending school, visiting grandparents, playing sport and making new friends.

With “normality” postponed for the foreseeable future, there is a serious risk many children will come out of this crisis worse off, unless important measures are undertaken.

In Australia, the debate regarding young people and COVID-19 has largely focused on whether schools should remain open or not. This narrow framing has meant that other important issues have been sidelined, or ignored completely.

The federal government insists that schools should remain open to ensure children do not miss out on an education and parents can continue to work.

Children should never have to miss out on an education. But equally, we should expect that they should be able to learn in a clean and safe environment.

Today, at a minimum, that would require ramping up government funding to meet schools’ sanitation needs including the implementation of daily temperature testing, and preparation to shift to smaller class sizes.

These measures would put schools in a better position to deal with the current pandemic as well as seasonal flu and other viruses that affect society every year at the cost of many lives.

So far, state governments have done little to move in this direction.

The federal government has also failed to take into account children and teachers who are immunocompromised, or those who live with a family member who is.

Governments should take immediate steps to care for those with the greatest health needs. Students and teachers must be able to stay home to protect themselves and family members, but this has to be done at no cost to their education or income.

Moving to online teaching is one avenue to keep students engaged with learning. But this comes with its own set of challenges, particularly for children who lack a suitable device with which to learn, or who live in remote areas with little or no access to the internet.

No child should be left behind. There is a risk that many students who already struggle at school, will temporarily, or even permanently, abandon formal learning.

This may be because they cannot, or refuse to, access online teaching, or because they are forced to seek employment or accept more hours to help their families at this time. This too needs to be to addressed.

Households with children must be guaranteed free internet access, and funds established to provide students who need it with the necessary digital devices to access online learning.

Measures are also needed to ensure women are not left to bear the main financial and social costs.

The majority of sole parents are women and, for those in heterosexual relationships, women are more likely to be the “second earner”, in casual and lower-paid jobs. This means they are most at risk of losing income, or their jobs, during the pandemic. They are most likely to take the hit if families are forced to choose which parent takes on the main caring responsibility for children at home.

Parents should not be forced to take unpaid leave if the work-childcare juggle becomes impossible. Instead, if parents have to stay at home, they should be able to access JobKeeper payments without having to seek permission from their employer, or face the threat of being sacked.

Parents should also have the option to share caring responsibilities while continuing to work on a part-time basis, so that both parents can maintain a connection to their place of employment and earn in excess of the JobKeeper rate.

Without such an approach, there is a risk that the least well-off children will be further disadvantaged, educationally and financially, during this pandemic. There is also the risk that women’s access to the labour market, which has improved over the past few decades, will be reversed.