When the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread like wildfire, many governments around the world have responded by closing schools.
The rationale for this was obvious. Having seen the highly contagious and deadly virus infect millions of people worldwide in a frighteningly short space of time, it was only a matter of time before schools experienced mass outbreaks.
Indeed, numerous Australian schools had started shutting down after students, parents, staff, contractors and teachers fell victim to the virus. States and territories quickly made the decision to transition to remote learning in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus.
Parents were asked to keep their children at home, while being told that children of essential workers can still attend.
During this extraordinary change, there have been glimpses of the impact this has had on education in Australia, but new research has revealed how the most vulnerable children have been affected by the lockdown.
A new study by the Centre for Independent Studies, titled: ‘Pain Without Gain: Why School Closures Are Bad Policy’, claims that the approximate impact of a term of school closures for disadvantaged students range from 1.5 weeks to 3.3 weeks of lost learning, depending on subject and year level.
“The fact that it is more difficult for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to learn from home — as they tend to have less access to reliable home internet or effective parental support — should have been obvious to policymakers,” the authors of the study, Blaise Joseph and Glenn Fahey, wrote.
“Schools should not have closed and should now completely re-open as soon as possible”.
Joseph and Fahey say the Victorian, Tasmanian, and ACT governments should consider fast-tracking their current timetables for going back to full-time face-to-face learning for all students.
“There will likely be a significant — but not necessarily irretrievable — negative effect of the extended school closures for disadvantaged students in Victoria, Tasmania, the ACT, New South Wales, and Queensland,” they wrote.
“It is important that these government school systems track students’ progress as they come back into school, to identify students who may have fallen behind in the key areas of literacy and numeracy, and intervene to ensure they catch up with their peers”.
Joseph and Fahey added that assessments of this kind are now crucial, given that NAPLAN has been cancelled for 2020.
Matthew Johnson, national president and CEO of the Australian Special Education Principals’ Association (ASEPA), said the crisis has only highlighted the gaps and inequities that still exist for students with disabilities.
“It is the collective responsibility of governments, teachers, parents and caregivers to help reduce educational inequality for students with disabilities, especially during a time of crisis like the COVID-19 virus,” he told The Educator.
“In order to ensure that systematic, long-term solutions are provided, all factors that affect access to education, including policy, legislation, financing, human resources and data, must be explored”.
Dr David Roy from the University of Newcastle, who works closely with governments and disability advocacy groups, said that as students return to school, regular contact, clear goals, communication, proper resources and full inclusion in both the academic and social aspects of the school need to be ensured.
“The positives from on-line learning, when it has worked with the school seeing the child as a child with abilities and challenges like all children, rather than the ‘deficit’ medical disability need to be continued,” he said.
Dr Roy said there is real concern from parents that if infection rates rise, children with a disability will be one of the groups not prioritised if medical hospitalisation is required.
“There is a deep concern across the community that disabled people and children’s lives are not as valued as others,” he said.
“For all children to thrive, communication, and empathy and understanding are what will allow a meaningful return to education; that and setting real work and real support to ensure that there is true equality of learning support in the classroom”.