Reopening schools has become a flash point in the debate over easing the COVID-19 restrictions.
Leading the charge to reopen them is Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In a video message to teachers on April 15 he said: “The education of our children hangs in the balance” if schools do not reopen soon. He added that this “is even more essential for those vulnerable students who we know won’t get an education at home".
Morrison hinted, however, that his overriding imperative was to get workers back at work. “We cannot allow a situation where parents are forced to choose between putting food on the table through their employment to support their kids and their kids’ education.”
That same message has also been directed at Victorian Labor premier Daniel Andrews, whose government has stood firm that only children of “essential workers” and vulnerable students will attend Term 2. All other students have to participate online.
Andrews responded on April 28, stating: “I won’t be lectured on looking after disadvantaged kids. We have supported and we will continue to support every student across our state, in the pandemic … All of these issues have been weighed, and we believe the right thing to do is keep the kids home at the moment unless you simply can’t do that.”
Unlike Morrison, Andrews argued people’s health must be the priority. “If you can have your kids educated at home, that’s exactly what you must do. That is essential to avoiding the spread of this virus.”
Andrews is right — people’s lives must come first. That means prioritising the fight against the deadly virus. International experience shows Australia will need to have critical measures in place before lifting restrictions to avoid losing the gains made in suppressing COVID-19 through a second wave of infections.
But the debate should not be narrowed down to whether schools should reopen or whether parents have to choose between their children’s education or their jobs. Doing so obscures the need for a discussion regarding measures to tackle the various impacts of the pandemic on children — which are deepening existing inequalities in the education system — as well as on teachers and parents.
Victoria has taken some good measures to guarantee disadvantaged children do not miss out in online schooling. This includes loaning thousands of laptops and tablets, and the distribution of some 26,000 SIM cards and internet dongles for those without access to internet.
This is an important start: online education has to be accompanied by access to devices and internet for all students who currently do not have them — and at no cost to their families.
But much more is needed.
Learning at home during COVID-19: Effects on vulnerable young Australians, a report released in April by the University of Tasmania’s Peter Underwood Centre at the request of the federal education department, found nearly half (46%) of children and young people are “at risk [of] adverse effects on their educational outcomes, nutrition, physical movement, social, and emotional well being by being physically disconnected from school”.
Researchers Natalie Brown, Kitty te Riele, Becky Shelley and Jessica Woodroffe said that, health restrictions permitting, there is an “urgent need” to reconnect these students with school-based education “to support their learning and well being outcomes”. They urged a rapid investment in schools to enable them to be in a position “to deliver education both online and on-site”.
The report noted that providing access to online learning is crucial, but that there needs to be consideration of the needs of disadvantaged students who are at risk of falling further behind in the school system — if not dropping out altogether.
The report recommends additional funding to provide individualised help for students who “are not engaging in [online] learning or are at risk of disengaging over the short and long term.” This is particularly important in remote areas, and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, where disengagement rates are higher. It says there is a real risk that “some will be turned off learning for the long term and may not re-engage at all.”
It also says that consideration has to be given to those students for whom education at home is not only not feasible, but potentially dangerous. This includes the availability of adequate spacing, “a critical issue in homes that [are] already stretched and not equipped for learning”, through to the safety from family violence and access to support services that, in some cases, only schools can provide.
Learning at home during COVID-19 also urges governments to consider school’s non-educational aspects. It says that some students may be finding it harder to access “free meals such as breakfast and lunches (as well as food provided by before and after school care), provided by schools.”
While some states have taken steps to address this, the report notes that a new cohort of students might be missing out — those who may not have been experiencing food insecurity prior to COVID-19 but who are now “struggling and under extreme stress”.
The report notes that there are “risks and sensitivities” in limiting attendance exclusively to specific groups “as it can be stigmatising and counterproductive”.
“The risk of stigmatisation does not only include students who may be classified as ‘at risk’ or vulnerable, but also children of essential workers, who may be perceived by other parents/children to be carrying the virus.”
The researchers propose a combination of “direct and personalised invitations to specific vulnerable school students and their families/carers” as well as “to a balanced cohort of students to reduce stigmatisation of specific groups and ‘normalise’ attendance.”
Slowly expanding what is being offered by schools can help facilitate “a transition back to school education in the medium term, and the possibility of a blended program of face to face and online learning in the shorter term.”
But to be able to do this, the researchers say, schools have to be able to meet certain minimum health requirements. These include safety protocols, rigorous and more frequent cleaning, and resources and time for hand washing and temperature checks.
Teachers and parents
Measures are also needed to protect teachers who, the researchers note, have put in a “mammoth effort … to prevent and mitigate [the] negative effects of learning at home, especially for vulnerable children and young people,” and whose workload “has been, and will continue to be, significantly magnified”.
It recommends allowing staff in high-risk health categories to work off-site and to hire more professional staff to manage the larger workloads and help students re-engage in learning and dealing with trauma arising from the pandemic.
The report says that governments need to come up with the funds to ensure that there schools have the necessary infrastructure and teacher training required to improve online learning. Along with on-site learning, this “will pay dividends well into the future and contribute to a more equal and resilient education system”.
While Learning at home during COVID-19 did not comment on remuneration, another essential measure is a pay rise for teachers, commensurate with their increased workload and the essential role they play in society.
Any return to school needs to be staggered, with student numbers limited to ensure physical distancing is possible. But this process has to culminate in another important measure missing from the report: a generalised reduction in class sizes. This will best place schools to protect students not only from the current pandemic but any future seasonal flu or virus.
The report recognises the huge role parents have, and are, playing in the shift to online learning at home, and says that governments need to provide support that “goes beyond physical provision of resources”. It suggests a national hotline dedicated to helping parents to support their children’s learning at home.
As one school staff member quoted in the report said: “Parents are very grateful for the support whether it is the loan of devices and/or data cards. However, they are finding this a very difficult time because they feel obliged to help the students and they are unable to do so.”
Disadvantaged children are more likely to have parents, or a sole parent, in jobs with less provision for sick leave or ability to work from home. In most cases women — generally viewed as the “second earner” and in casual and lower-paid jobs — will be the ones to take unpaid leave, or resign from their job to look after children at home.
Any loss of income will only compound economic hardship at a time when education from home means higher utility and food costs, especially for larger households. Learning at home during COVID-19 suggests that state governments facilitate “part-time employment for a period with Commonwealth support to sustain full-time equivalent superannuation entitlements”.
One way to do this would be to ensure that parents who have to stay at home can access the JobKeeper payment without having to seek permission from their employer.
Being able to do this while working part-time is important, as it can enable parents to share caring responsibilities while allowing both to maintain a connection to their place of employment and potentially earn in excess of the JobKeeper rate.
Commonwealth support for any potential loss in superannuation entitlements, especially for women who retire with much lower funds, is also important. This should be combined with immediate support, in the form of a supplementary bonus for all parents on JobKeeper, or single parent payments, to cover the higher costs of caring for children who are learning from home.
These are the sorts of measures required if we are to avoid the bulk of the social cost of school closures being passed on to parents and teachers — and to ensure when students go back, they do so to a safe environment that can best provide the quality education they deserve.