Covid-19 taught the education sector several key lessons and highlighted many of the challenges students and their families face, particularly when it comes to accessing technology. It also confirmed the importance of schools to their communities, as Andrew Pierpoint, President of the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association, explains.
For a brief moment in 2021 there was a feeling that maybe we had seen off COVID. Lockdowns and restrictions had played havoc with education for two years, and students and staff were looking forward to an undisrupted school year in 2022. Delta and then Omicron put paid to that, and we now face a third year of uncertainty. With students back at school it is timely to ask what we have learnt from the past two years?
Students experiencing disadvantage were disproportionately affected by COVID
COVID has affected students in different ways. Some students achieved well during remote learning. Some simply marked time. But many, particularly those students already experiencing disadvantage, slipped back as a result of lost learning. I’ve heard from a number of principals that some of these students have ‘disappeared’– they’ve lost touch with their learning or community activities. This could be for a number of reasons: they may have moved school because a parent changed job or they had to move house due to the rising cost of rent. Or they may have just disengaged through lack of contact or support. We know that when families are struggling, it can have a significant impact on their child’s education – but the evidence also shows that with the right support, children can overcome the obstacles they face and get back on track with their learning.
It has been heartening to see the results of The Smith Family’s Catch-Up Learning pilot program, which showed remarkable progress for many students who received one-on-one online tutoring at home. A number of state governments are also implementing tutoring programs to help students make up for lost learning.
Digital Inequity is an issue
While lack of home access to a computer was a problem for many students before COVID, remote learning revealed the extent of the digital divide in our country. Many households found themselves sharing one device, often just a mobile phone, among multiple students and their parents.
Lack of reliable internet access was also an issue. There are still places in Australia, sometimes just an hour from a capital city, where there is no consistent internet service. This affected teachers and other school staff as well as students.
With the uncertainty surrounding COVID, remote learning could be part of educational life for some time to come. And what we’ve learned over the past two years is that, in some cases, it can work. In the future, years 11 and 12 may not need to be on campus five days per week – the remote learning component has taught educators that other ways of learning are possible.
Digital Access and hardware are the pen and paper of the 21st century
But for it to work for everyone, more must be done to ensure all students have the necessary tools to participate. A laptop or similar device, reliable internet and access to technical support are essential for every student, not just for those whose family can afford it.
Community is important
COVID has also revealed what many school leaders have known for some time: schools are about more than just education. They are also community hubs, particularly in rural and regional schools.
Many school leaders actually reported increased engagement with their community during COVID – they acted as sources of information based on government advice. School principals often found themselves standing at the school gate in the morning interpreting the latest rule changes/guidelines for students and parents.
Organisations working in the community also performed a vital connecting role. For example, Learning for Life co-ordinators at The Smith Family helped to link students and families experiencing disadvantage with local services and keep them connected to their school.
However, students missed out on important interactions with their peers and other adults, as well as extracurricular activities, all of which play an important role in mental health and wellbeing. Staff and the broader community also benefit from these activities.
Perhaps the most positive lesson we’ve learned is that none of these issues are insurmountable. Students and families, along with teachers/principals and schools, have shown time and again they are resilient and resourceful. It’s up to us all, as a community, to support each other through the challenges that lie ahead, particularly those students who need extra support to make the most of their education.