More than 10 per cent of Victorian students from disadvantaged schools were absent during the state's first period of remote learning in term two compared to just 4 per cent in advantaged schools, suggesting the coronavirus pandemic is widening the gap between high and low-performing students.
Many schools also struggled to keep their students’ education on track, with one in five principals reporting “concern or strong concern about the lack of academic progress during remote learning”. These concerns were strongest in regional schools.
Absentee rates increased week on week during the state’s first phase of remote learning. Credit:Tanya Macheda
During the first lockdown, schools were granted a special exemption from the legal requirement to teach the full curriculum remotely, with many applying to skip subjects including Health and Physical Education, Sciences and the Arts. The same exemption has continued for the second lockdown period.
An independent report for the Andrews government on the state’s first phase of remote learning found that students’ experiences in that period were divided, with some thriving and receiving strong support at home while others lacked a supportive family environment and struggled to even log on to classes.
The report also warned of a risk that many students who were absent for long stretches might never re-engage with education. In some cases where students were not engaging, school staff visited children’s homes because parents did not return calls or emails.
“Schools face serious difficulties in reintegrating these students into learning and school life,” the report found.
Absenteeism rates increased every week that students were away from school, “indicating that some students became disengaged with remote and flexible learning as the weeks progressed”. Absentee rates were significantly worse among secondary school students, rising to more than 14 per cent among students in years 7 to 10 by week eight of remote learning.
The report by consultancy Learning First was completed in June, after students had returned to face-to-face classes but before they returned to remote learning for several more weeks due to the state’s second wave of COVID-19. It was released by the Andrews government on Friday.
Education Minister James Merlino said the government had always known the shift to remote learning was not going to be easy.
“We had to completely change the way our entire education system has operated for decades in a matter of a few weeks and this was always going to present challenges and opportunities for schools and school communities,” Mr Merlino said.
The government is considering ideas to help students catch up on lost learning in term four and in 2021.
The report found parents gained unprecedented insights into their children’s education, and developed stronger relationships with teachers, although some schools reported being put under “significant pressure” by parents to enable at-school attendance.
Teacher wellbeing was lower on average at schools with higher on-site attendance, as teachers struggled with the demands of social distancing, hygiene and catering for more students on-site.
Opposition education spokeswoman Cindy McLeish said the longer students were away, the more detrimental the impact on their education and welfare. She urged the government to open schools for all students from the first week of term four, not the second week as is planned.
The report was based on responses from tens of thousands of students and parents from more than 400 schools, and a series of regular surveys from school leaders.
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