About one million Victorian children will start returning to school from the end of next week. Instead of the carefree return we had all desperately hoped for, they will walk through the school gates under the stubborn shadow of COVID-19. Once again, it’s a time of uncertainty and worry for many families.

The disruption of the past two years has been unprecedented. As well as some of the longest lockdowns in the world, many children have endured more than three terms of remote schooling.

It’s been damaging, to learning, social development, and friendships. Our children have missed memorable moments in the playground and classroom, not to mention camps and other rites of passage. Perhaps most worrying are the reports of declining mental health for children who’ve struggled with isolation. 

In light of this, getting our children back to school safely for the start of Term 1 must be a top priority.

The good news is that, even with Omicron all around us, there’s much we can all do to help. We can make sure younger children are vaccinated as soon as possible, now they are eligible – and that everyone else gets their vaccinations and booster shots. 

Rapid antigen testing in schools will also help. In return for only a few moments of discomfort, RATs can provide peace of mind for families and schools that outbreaks can be controlled quickly. 

But even with these steps, teachers have an enormous job ahead of them. The latest NAPLAN test results reveal existing large learning gaps as early as Year 3 between many advantaged and disadvantaged students. By the time students reach Year 9, the learning gap can be as big as four years in reading and numeracy. Getting children back to school is the best way to stop these gaps growing even wider.

Teachers will need to re-establish school routines and check in on each child’s learning. Students who’ve fallen behind will need targeted, catch-up tutoring in reading, writing, and numeracy, so they can regain confidence.

All the while, many schools will need to juggle staff absences due to COVID. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. 

We all have a role to play. Principals, teachers, families, and children will need to look out for each other. Our reserves of kindness, patience, and flexibility will be called on, yet again.

It’s up to all of us to support our children, and our teachers, as they get back to the important business of school.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Dr Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economic policy.

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