Introduction by Croakey: The COVID-19 pandemic has focused attention on many inequities in health – but it’s also important to consider how it is affecting inequities that are already pervasive across education systems.
The extended period of home-schooling in NSW and Victoria is likely to have more adverse consequences for students from areas of lower socioeconomic areas and for students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, than on other students.
Alongside a push for schools to reduce the risk of potential COVID-19 spread in classrooms, experts are also highlighting the importance of focussing on students’ mental health and on ensuring disadvantaged students are not further left behind.
Nicole MacKee writes:
The concentration of COVID-19 outbreaks in areas of social disadvantage is likely to further entrench educational inequity in parts of the country, say educational leaders who are highlighting the need to address these issues as students prepare to return to classrooms next term.
Craig Petersen, President of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council, said COVID was putting the spotlight on communities where equity issues were endemic.
“These communities are always disadvantaged. And it’s not just impacting south-west Sydney and western Sydney, it’s also affecting rural and remote locations with COVID cases now in Dubbo and Wilcannia,” he said.
“If there something good that comes out of this [pandemic], it’s closer attention to the things that we need to do as society to address these equity issues,” he said.
“With such a small population by global standards, we can’t afford for parts of the community to be marginalised or not have access to things, like education, that we know are essential for a high-functioning community.”
Professor Pasi Sahlberg, Deputy Director (Research) at the Gonski Institute for Education, UNSW, said there was no question the pandemic was further accelerating inequalities in Australian society more broadly, and “certainly in education”.
“We all know is that before the pandemic 18 months ago, inequity and inequality were some of biggest challenges that we have in education, and those things have not gone away; they have got worse.”
Sahlberg noted, however, that it was too early to know how pandemic lockdown measures might be affecting the educational outcomes of students in areas of social disadvantage.
He pointed to reports last week that the pandemic had not had a significant impact on this year’s National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results.
“Victoria, where the schools were closed much of last year, was performing better than any other state,” Sahlberg said.
“The real question is, when we break it down to different socioeconomic groups, what declines are we likely to see for these most disadvantaged students?”
Tale of two cities
In Sydney, Petersen noted that government schools in the Local Government Areas (LGAs) of concern – which are subject to tighter lockdown rules – had strictly adhered to NSW health orders on matters such as when students could attend school for practical Higher School Certificate classes.
“In other provinces in Sydney, and in other schools, the interpretation of the health order has been a bit more liberal,” Petersen said.
He said efforts by schools in disadvantaged areas to support students by providing laptops and WiFi dongles, for instance, were often ineffective with other family members quickly using the available data because they are working from home as well.
And, he added, there was a possibility that schools in LGAs of concern may not return to classrooms at the same time as other areas, with requirements that these areas first reach a target of 80 percent double-dose vaccination and a COVID infection rate of less than 50 per 100,000 population.
“There is still a possibility that some of our most negatively impacted LGAs students might not be able to return on those dates,” Petersen said.
Mental health concerns
While Sahlberg said the learning outcomes could only be measured in the longer term, the mental health impacts of the COVID pandemic and lockdowns were becoming clear.
“All the mental health statistics of young people here in Australia and Canada and in many other places, are clearly indicating that during these 18 months, depression and anxiety have become much more common among young people and children,” Sahlberg said.
Earlier this week, the Sydney Morning Herald reported a 31 percent increase in young people presenting to NSW emergency departments for self-harm or suicidal ideation.
Sahlberg said the number one issue in the coming weeks would be to ensure that schools were a place “for healing” from overall mental health concerns and in relation to social isolation and loneliness.
“This is also an equity issue,” he said. “Children who have been in lockdown in smaller apartments or with more people, for example, have a different impact to those living in wealthier suburbs, where their parents can hire sports coaches.”
Students who have endured hardships don’t need an “academic push” or a reminder that they may be lagging behind others, Sahlberg said. “The most important equity issue is to make sure that school is a healthy and safe place, and that kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are given some certainty.”
Relax academic pressure
Sahlberg said the few face-to-face weeks available to students at the end of the year could also serve as “safe experiment” to see how creative and innovative schools could be in their approaches to learning.
“Do a lot of outdoor learning because that’s much healthier and safer than squeezing all the kids in the classrooms,” Sahlberg said. “Relax the academic pressure and focus on providing a healthy reconnection to the teachers, other kids and the community.”
Sahlberg added that it was important for parents, particularly to students in primary and junior high school, to be more relaxed in their expectations of what could be achieved in the final weeks of the 2021 school year.
“Parents should not expect the schools can fix [what has occurred in] two or three months of learning from home,” Sahlberg said, adding that they should embrace a more relaxed approach to learning to ensure children entered the summer holidays “healthy and happy” and optimistic about the next school year.
More support needed
Petersen said additional counselling and wellbeing support would be crucial when students returned, noting that many larger government high schools have only one full-time counsellor for the entire student population.
“When the students return, we cannot just react when we observe the visible signs of distress,” he said. “We need support to be proactive in looking at how our students are travelling, and how our staff are travelling too.”
Petersen said a “whole-of-government” response was needed from not only the NSW Department of Education, but also from the agencies like the Department of Communities and Justice, which was responsible for some students in south-west Sydney.
“There needs to be a higher level of co-ordination between some of those key government agencies, but also some of the non-government organisations that are really well positioned to provide support as well.”
A NSW Education spokesperson said the date for a return to school was set in line with health advice relating to increased community vaccination rates by October.
“Vaccinations for all school staff increases the safety for all students and the community. Education and Health are working on creating more options for school staff to be vaccinated,” they said.
“The Department of Education will work with NSW Health to ensure students have sufficient access to vaccines, including the possibility of vaccination hubs in schools, if required.”
They said the staggered return to school (from 25 October) would ensure students were able to learn in COVID-safe environments.
“Students whose learning is impacted by the pandemic are being supported through the $337 million COVID Intensive Learning Support (tutoring) Program,” they said. “The program is being delivered in every NSW government school, as well as non-government schools with the most significant levels of need.
“More than 7,100 educators are on the ground and working with students in over 2,179 schools.”
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