More help needed for vulnerable learners in the age of COVID-19 school closures

By Catherine Drane, Lynette Vernon and Sarah O’Shea

During lockdowns due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, school closures were hotly debated. Complete school closures were perceived by some as being a way to protect both students and teaching staff. Although initially children appeared to be at low risk for contracting the virus, many families were deeply concerned about the health implications of sending their children to school. Many families made their own decision to keep their children out of school even before the regulatory bodies made the call to close schools and some were slow to return their children when schools reopened.

While a vaccination for the COVID-19 virus may well be available soon, it is possible future outbreaks of the virus will continue to force school closures or partial closures across Australia well into 2021 at least.

We were interested in the educational, psychosocial and emotional repercussions of school closures, in particular the long-term ramifications for vulnerable or disadvantaged children.

Educationally at-risk children in Australia

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that as of 2019 there were 3,948,811 students enrolled in 9503 schools in Australia, with 2,263,207 primary students and 1,680,504 secondary students. Mass school closures thus have the potential to impact nearly four million students.

A significant proportion of the Australian student population experience disadvantage in some form, with 20% of the school student population, approximately 800 000 students, being in the lowest quintile for family income.

Students come from vulnerable backgrounds for a number of equity reasons, such as the household economic situation (low income or jobless households, financial stress), lack of social support (e.g. social networks), personal characteristics (poor household health, low educational attainment), and race/ethnicity. Many students don’t just fit into one category but rather multiple categories of disadvantage. For these students who are already at an educational disadvantage, the educational gap widens by not attending school.

Over 2020, the Australian schooling sector experienced varying levels of lockdown, with the recent outbreak in Victoria resulting in up to two terms of school closures and a state-wide move to online learning. Until recently there were school closures in South Australia. Such a move to online learning foregrounds educational inequalities that exist within a multi-tiered educational system.

Each state or territory differs in their educational governance, as well as their diverse regional, rural and remote schooling opportunities, across states and within states educational participation may not occur on an equal playing field.

Implications of school closures

We undertook a deep dive into the emerging literature and existing knowledge to consider what implications there might be for long-term school closures for students in more vulnerable contexts.

Whilst remote learning can be challenging for many learners, those from materially disadvantaged backgrounds face a number of additional barriers to learning from home. These additional difficulties include, but are not limited to

  • digital exclusion,
  • poor technology access,
  • increased psychosocial challenges, and
  • educational disengagement.

There are inherent issues around the unequal division of resources and support for students learning at home. Some students may have limited access to a computer, some may share a computer with other family members, and with others having limited internet access and if access is available it may be through expensive mobile plans with restricted data.

These issues did not go unrecognised during COVID_19 with many schools and communities implementing innovative solutions to address inequalities – for example

  • loaning out computers,
  • buying dongles for internet plans for their students,
  • supplying paper packages to their homes,
  • having community businesses supply computers and
  •  local prisoners building desks for students  for their home study. 

Although these interventions were innovative, they were ‘band aid’ in nature. Yet they went a long way to mitigate the inequalities of resources for students studying at home.

Despite these interventions, it is estimated that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have learnt at half their usual rate during lockdown, so the longer the students were away from school, the more learning was lost.

Equally, what these responses could not address was the fundamental emotional and psychological difficulties that school closures presented. Many students need structure in order to learn and the school system provides such a structure. Importantly, the school environment provides the basis for the teacher-student relationship to flourish, which is known to be particularly important for student engagement. When students are engaged in their learning, they learn more.

If students become disengaged they are at risk of a range of adverse academic and social outcomes, such as daily absence, disruptive behaviour, and poor school connectedness. Furthermore, for some students, once the physical link to school is broken through COVID-19 disruptions it stays broken, and even though the school reopens they do not return. For these students who continue to disengage, they fall further behind their peers, and for some, the learning deficit won’t be recoverable.

Building capacity and resilience

Moving forward and learning to live with further disruptions, requires future generations to become adaptable to possible changing learning environments, building capacity and resilience for future crises becomes an imperative. Proactive and multifaceted responses and planning for any future crises will best meet the educational needs of our diverse student populations to ensure vulnerable children are not left behind in their learning.

Governments should re-examine resource allocations to schools to ensure all students have equality of access to up-to-date resources, especially technology. The pandemic has shown us that learning online is possible, but if we are to avoid widening existing educational disparities, we must ensure that learning is equitable for all students.

For those who want more, here is our full paper Drane, C.F, Vernon, L & O’Shea, S. (2020). Vulnerable learners in the age of COVID-19: A scoping review. Australian Educational Researcher.

Catherine Drane is a Research Fellow in the NCSEHE. Previously, Catherine has worked on large-scale National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) projects across Australia. Catherine’s research interests include adolescent development and public health interventions, and quantitative research methods. Her teaching in the areas of research, measurement, design, and analysis led her being awarded a Murdoch University Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

Lynette Vernon is a Senior Research Fellow at Edith Cowan University with the School of Education and an adjunct researcher with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. Lynette was a secondary science teacher for over 20 years retraining to complete her PhD in psychology at Murdoch University. She directed the Murdoch Aspirations and Pathways for University project (MAP4U) working with high schools to support students aspirations. Her research interests are in developmental psychology, especially related to technology use, sleep and their impact on academic attainment and wellbeing.

Prof. Sarah O’Shea is the Director of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) which is hosted by Curtin University. Sarah has spent over twenty-five years working to effect change within the higher education (HE) sector through research that focuses on the access and participation of students from identified equity groups. Her institutional and nationally funded research studies advance understanding of how under-represented student cohorts enact success within university, navigate transition into this environment, manage competing identities and negotiate aspirations for self and others. This work is highly regarded for applying diverse conceptual and theoretical lenses to tertiary participation, which incorporate theories of social class, identity work, gender studies and poverty. Sarah has published extensively in the field and has been awarded over $AUD3 million in grant funding since 2009, she is also an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow (ALTF), a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA) and a Churchill Fellow.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “More help needed for vulnerable learners in the age of COVID-19 school closures

  1. It is useful to pass on lessons learned for education from dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. But these just confirm what was already know. Due to NCSEHE’s previous work, we already knew online was feasible, but presented challenges for some groups. Educational institutions in Singapore had already instituted plans for e-learning after previous disease outbreaks. Educators can learn these lessons, but not necessarily change the system they work in to adopt measures for equity and resiliency. What we can do is equip new teachers to be ready to deal with these situations in the future by incorporate this in the curriculum for teacher training.

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