Covid lockdowns still affecting student attendance – expert

Covid lockdowns still affecting student attendance – expert

Behaviours introduced during the pandemic may be carrying over to present-day learning and impacting on student outcomes, an expert in educational research says.

Students’ school attendance rates have been declining nationwide since the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, with estimates showing that chronic absenteeism levels in schools reached 49.9% in 2022, with between 1% to 5% of all students classed as severely absent.

Studies show that the prevalence of students who refuse to attend school is higher amongst those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, bullying and student disconnection from the learning curriculum may also be contributing to increased absences, academics have noted.

Students across Australia are becoming increasingly absent from classrooms, prompting concerns from experts on students' education levels.

According to government estimates, of the four million Australians who are of schooling age, as many as half of all students fall into the 'chronically absent' category - meaning they are missing 10% or more school days per year. Of this, up to 200,000 students - or 5% of the school-age cohort, may be 'severely absent', with a further 50,000 'detached students' not enrolled in a formal education program of any type.

The pandemic normalised school refusal

Western Sydney University researcher and AARE Member, Professor Susanne Gannon, believes that behaviours introduced during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns may be carrying over to present-day learning.

"School attrition and school refusal have been impacted by years of pandemic-induced disruption," she told MCERA.

"School absenteeism may have been normalised through the pandemic. Some parents became used to their children not being at school, and expectations increased for learning materials to be available online."

According to recent data from the OECD, 'boredom' was cited as the third most common reason behind students' refusal to attend school, whilst Australia continues to lag behind the OECD average for students who feel 'safe' at school.

Whilst the percentage of students who skip individual classes is down, there has been an increase in truancy amongst students, with more Australians skipping entire days of school.

"After the isolation of school lockdowns in 2020, many young people were bored at home and desperate to return to their friends and the stability and stimulation of everyday life and learning at school," Professor Gannon said.

"Yet continuing disruptions from rolling lockdowns and teacher shortages meant that their school was far from normal."

Greater emphasis on wellbeing needed

Though disruptions from pandemic lockdowns have not been ideal for student attendance, government figures show that this downward trend has continued since schools returned to their regular schedule in 2021.

Overall attendance rates for students in Years 1-10 fell by 4.4% between 2021 and 2022, with the proportion of these students whose attendance rate was equal to or greater than 90% falling by a staggering 21.3%.

Professor Gannon says reversing this trend involves placing a greater emphasis on student and teacher wellbeing.

"Our research with students, teachers, and parents on pandemic education impacts suggests that educating for wellbeing and resilience must be prioritised alongside academic outcomes,” she said.

"Learning is a collaborative, relational process that relies on trust, a sense of safety, and the nurturing environment of school communities that focus on creating conditions within which every young person can flourish."