Intermittent school closures to manage Covid outbreaks are likely for the rest of the year, and possibly well into 2022, depending on when children can be safely vaccinated.
No premier or chief minister should kid themselves that schools are somehow immune to this risk, but we need to acknowledge the significant costs to children that school closures cause. For some, academic learning loss may be considerable, especially for those already struggling in school or at risk of disengaging. Grattan Institute research, based on the best available evidence in 2020, suggested the learning gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children could grow three times faster during school closures.
Research in Britain and the US, among others, is now emerging that points to a significant hit to learning in those countries, especially for disadvantaged students. While early NAPLAN results released on Wednesday report state and territory averages, the impacts will have varied between different groups, with some much better placed than others to sustain learning from home. We also know from numerous parent, teacher and student reports that remote learning in 2020 was incredibly challenging and hard to sustain over the longer term.
The costs of school closures are also much broader than academic outcomes. The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute has warned that closures are associated with increased harm to children’s physical and mental health and welfare, driven by social isolation, increased anxiety, neglect, and even abuse.
By now – more than 18 months into the pandemic – we should have developed much better harm-minimisation strategies to reduce the costs of the pandemic, including school closures, for children. The good news is that it’s not too late to improve our response. As vaccination coverage increases and Australia starts to move away from widespread lockdowns, we need to build confidence that we can keep children and educators safe while schools stay open.
Until we can safely vaccinate children, we need to make schools as resistant as possible to local outbreaks. This will be no easy task, as Delta has proved highly transmissible among children. Planning to keep schools open and safe needs to happen now, in all states and territories including those not affected by outbreaks. This means prioritising vaccinations for school staff and supporting community vaccination efforts where rates are lagging. Improving ventilation is s critical and rapid antigen testing should be explored.
Leaders should also do more to improve the quality and consistency of remote teaching in school closures. Every child should now have access to a suitable device and internet connection. Governments also need to ensure a minimum standard for remote teaching that keeps all children learning – it is alarming some primary schools in Victoria are offering no, or very minimal, “live” online teaching 18 months in.
Nothing about managing a global pandemic is straightforward but we owe it to young Australians to do all we can to get them back to school safely, and keep them there.
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