COVID-19 and schools

The top five ways COVID places harsher burdens on educators. There’s an urgent need for change

COVID has caused commotion in the early childhood education and care sector since it arrived in 2020. It made educators  more stressed and added burdens to those already overburdened

The current level of chaos is unsustainable as shown in our research with Australian directors from long daycare centres, community preschools and family daycare services.

Six directors from rural and regional areas in NSW participated in the study. In their hour-long interview, the directors revealed stressors within the sector related to the pandemic in a number of areas. Here are the top five.

  1. Health regulations

As the COVID virus changes and governments try different methods to suppress the virus, early childhood directors and educators have tried to keep up with evolving regulations on a daily basis. To date, this has meant continually searching government websites to find the rules, watching media reports, reading government emails, attending webinars and reading text messages, adding to their daily workload and already onerous administrative requirements. 

As the health crisis unfolded, text message updates from government departments regularly came through very late on a Friday afternoon and again on a Sunday afternoon. This meant directors had to spend chunks of time on their weekend trying to decipher the information and then act upon it, including sending on important updates and communications to staff and parents outside work hours.  

Directors mentioned the added burden this required of having to constantly ensure lists of phone numbers were up to date so they could immediately contact staff, cleaners and parents if their centre was locked down. This led to a state of hypervigilance for some directors. 

Additionally, one government department required educators to attend a webinar when most community service educators were on mandated leave. No compensation was offered to educators for these unpaid hours. Since educators are the 13th lowest paid workers in Australia, it is unreasonable to request they attend training sessions during their annual leave.

Educators said: 

‘We were fine to wear masks in and out of the service – greeting parents. We were greeting parents at the gate, they were handing over their children’

‘It came in that you …had to wear a mask not outside, but inside when you were working with children, unless there was a child with a hearing challenge or there was a specific need for a child to see your face moving. I said to staff, actually, that’s all children all of the time.’

2. Staffing

Staffing has been much harder during the pandemic. Directors reported the numbers of children attending changed dramatically because of lockdowns, community outbreaks, families’changing needs and government rule changes. At one time, the government waived fees for everyone in childcare, so many families who didn’t normally access care enrolled, causing more changes in attendance and more administrative burden.

While the federal government’s JobKeeper scheme helpfully supported permanent staff, some casual educators did not receive the government payments. This meant that many casual staff left the sector. Directors reported that when asked to return, some of them didn’t want to lose the government payment which was far more generous than what they normally earned as an early childhood educator.

Staff rostering has also taken longer to organise during the various phases of the pandemic. Permanent staff have had to be given time to work with the children attending, time to work online with children, and then time to engage in professional development. Some services had to close because too many educators were considered close contacts of covid cases.

Additionally, time has had to be spent training educators on how to work with different technologies and with changing hygiene requirements. Staff have needed extra support with their own anxieties about catching the virus and working in a new way with masks with young children.

Educators commented:

‘We … stood down our casual staff, but… most of them could access the COVID payment … but it’s still difficult and we’ve actually spent this week changing staff round from room to room and putting the children together in one room’.

’The first week, we hardly had any children there. But by the second week, almost like 98 per cent.’

‘We had several vulnerable staff members had family members or themselves (with) autoimmune conditions that made them more vulnerable, ….. others had elderly parents in nursing homes’.

 ‘We’ve had different rosters for cleaning.

3. Informing and supporting families

Directors and educators have needed to be able to share the constantly changing and often confusing government regulations with parents, including which professions have been incorporated in the category of ‘essential workers’. 

The guidelines have not been clear, leaving directors with  difficult decision-making. Directors have reported spending time searching government websites trying to find clear definitions and rules to have evidence that their decisions were grounded on government guidelines. They have also needed to manage parents’ reactions to these decisions.

Educators said:

‘We’ve been trying to encourage families not to bring their children in …unless they’re an essential worker, which people have been really good about’.

‘If you’re a mum at home with five kids, you’re actually an essential worker as well’.

‘We shared resources that we were using with them (the children) and we even supplied families with some of those ideas around how to talk to their children. Parents (asked)… how do I explain this?’

4. Managing change and budgets

Some directors have faced challenging financial constraints and pressure from organisational managers. This included justifying the work and training their educators who were balancing that with the viability of the service. 

Additional costs for hygiene and cleaning have had to be absorbed by services, whereas many education departments provided schools with extra cleaning staff to help them. 

Educators explained:

‘COVID’s been a little bit different, because it’s been like a little bit like a stop-start routine’.

‘We wore the cost of that (reduction in attendance) for the first term. So, no families were asked to pay any fees. Then by second term, the State Government had stepped up and brought in the free preschool’. 

‘We spoke to the department early this time and said, look, we’re getting a whole lot of different messages. What’s required? We’ve been proactive in getting in touch with the department…even they are juggling balls at the moment’.

 ‘Some staff members that wanted things cleaned twice a day’.

5. Status

On the positive side, educators revealed that families were more supportive and appreciative of educators during the pandemic. Despite this, educators were disappointed they were not recognised as essential workers in media coverage. This is even when they had continued working throughout the pandemic, staying open for children of essential workers. Being valued, respected and visible has been important to educators, as well as solidarity with other educators.

They explained:

‘I think it’s a good opportunity for the policymakers and the leaders to actually have a little bit of a voice for us as well and just show that we are out here. We’re visible. But everyone’s doing the best job they can, so my hat goes off to everyone wherever they are and to all my colleagues everywhere’.

‘We have to stand up and really shout out to the policymakers and the government that it’s fine to call on us, great, and we keep answering, but you’d better show us some respect’.

A need for change

Overall, directors talked about exhaustion of their staff and being unable to keep going with this level of work in an overloaded sector. Clearly, something needs to change. 

Recently, NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet, called for radical reform of childcare, which could affect other states. The Thrive by Five campaign is petitioning the government to prioritise significant reform. As this study has shown, it is not time to renovate the sector, we need a whole childcare rebuild.

Dr Marg Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education within the School of Education.  Marg is the lead researcher for the funded Early Childhood Defence Program project (ECDP). This team, along with their Steering Committee of stakeholders has developed research-based, free, online resources for early childhood educators, parents and family/social workers to better support young children from Australian military families. She also leads an international team of researchers from Denmark, Canada and Georgia to investigate the impacts of regulated systems on about educators’ work. Twitter @MargRogers11

Associate Professor Wendy Boyd works as the Associate Dean in the Faculty of Education at Southern Cross University. Wendy is highly regarded in the early childhood field and researches in a number of areas, including educator professionalism. Wendy’s research focuses on provision of quality early childhood programs to support the optimal development of all children.

Professor Margaret Sims is a Professor in Early Childhood Education and Care and has worked in the areas of family support and disabilities for many years. She researches in the areas of professionalism in early childhood and higher education, families, disabilities, social justice and families from CaLD backgrounds. She is an Honorary Professor at Macquarie University.

Why we never want to be in Kansas

The year ahead for Australian schools: escalating workloads, industrial action and COVID-19:

On New Years’ Eve in 2020, teachers around Australia looked forward to leaving behind a difficult year of lockdowns and remote teaching, and starting a new, and hopefully better year afresh. However, on New Years’ Eve in 2021, teachers seem to have found themselves back at square one. Here we are, approaching term one, and states and territories are not in agreement about who will go back and when.

So just what will 2022 bring for Australian educators? In this review, we report on emerging trends in school education across Australia’s states and territories, and the professional and industrial matters which we think may confront teachers in the year ahead. 

Teacher workload and work pressures: a crisis at tipping point?

Achieving positive schooling experiences and outcomes for students depends considerably on ensuring teachers are well-resourced and supported to complete their important work. But teachers’ work has grown enormously in size and become more complex in nature. 

In recent research, we synthesised large-scale surveys from over 48,000 teacher-participants to analyse teacher workload across five Australian states. The most prominent finding emerging from these surveys was the near-universal increase in teachers’ workload, perceived to be driven by the ‘heavy hand’ of compliance reporting and datafication. This has impacted teachers’ core work, with a corresponding reduced time to focus on matters more directly related to classroom teaching.

Teachers’ hours of work were found to have increased over the 5 years between 2013-2018 and were reported as being slightly higher in Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria. 

Total average hours per week (Primary, FT)Total average hours per week (Secondary, FT)Hours within total undertaking work activities at home or on the weekend
New South Wales555511
Western Australia535310
Victoria52.853.211.5 for primary teachers. 6 hours for secondary.
Tasmania45.846.290% of primary teachers work 5 hours. 70% of secondary teachers work 3 hours
Queensland 43.944.1Teachers report spending between 1-7 hours on a range of tasks ‘outside rostered duty time’, including weekends, each week

The complexity and demands of teachers’ work has also increased nation-wide. In New South Wales, approximately 95% of teacher-respondents reported that the complexity of their work had increased over the last five years and that the range of activities undertaken in their work had increased. In New South Wales and Western Australia, over 96% and nearly 90%, respectively, of respondents reported that the volume of collection, analysis and reporting of data had increased over the last five years. 

It is very common for teachers to work beyond in-school hours. Over 99% of teachers responding in Queensland indicated they used time outside their rostered hours to plan and prepare lessons. In Victoria, planning and preparation was undertaken by a large majority of respondents during evenings (93%) and weekends (83%). 

This increase in workload and intensification of work has occurred at a time of governments promoting devolutionary, market-inspired policy. Previously we have argued that policies which devolve increased decision-making power to schools have contributed to the intensification of teachers’ work, resembling a ‘tsunami’ of paperwork. 

However, there appears to be shifting ground around the future of devolutionary policy in schools. For instance, after a decade in operation, the NSW Government repealed Local Schools, Local Decisions and replaced it with the School Success Model after it became evident that there were no improved educational outcomes across the States’ education system from this devolutionary policy. 

But time will tell the impact of this new reform on teachers’ workload. Previously we have argued that a new policy which sits alongside the School Success Model – the Quality Time Action Plan – which intends to “simplify administrative practices in schools” and bring about greater shared responsibility and accountability perhaps won’t adequately address the workload concerns and administrative burden on teachers created by devolution, as our research has documented. 

Policy deliberations around school governance and devolution may signal a ‘back to the future’.  Governments have previously commented that schools have been given ‘too much’ decision-making power, however we argue that policy reform should focus on the ways in which governance and accountability mechanisms can support teachers to focus on their core work of teaching and learning. 

Union demands: the time to improve teacher salaries and conditions

Our research has also documented the campaigns being led by teacher unions across various states in protest against these workload pressures facing teachers, alongside calls for improved salaries and to address the worsening nation-wide teacher shortage. 

In December 2021, New South Wales public school teachers engaged in their first strike action in 10 years. This action came off the back of findings from an Independent Inquiry into the NSW Teaching Profession finding major concerns with teachers’ working hours and salaries. 

Elsewhere we have argued that this situation has been furnished by a challenging industrial environment, where salaries for teachers are locked in a 2.5% legislated wages cap and teachers are barred from arguing work value cases before the Commission to seek salary increases. 

Victoria’s teacher union is similarly planning strike action for 2022, which would also be the first strike action by Victorian teachers in a decade. Teachers are seeking increases to pay and superannuation in addition to reduced face-to-face teaching hours and classroom sizes. 

Meanwhile the Queensland Teachers’ Union has argued that more needs to be done to attract teachers to move to rural and remote areas of the state to adequately staff schools. It has even been reported that pre-service teachers are being granted waivers to teach in Queensland to address teacher workforce shortages. 

Industrial action, once a prominent strategy by teacher unions to pressure governments to improve teachers’ pay and conditions, over time has been constrained. However, the groundswell of concerns is prompting teacher unions to push back against worsening industrial and professional conditions of work. Indeed, union leaders have indicated that industrial action is likely to continue this year.

It’s time to listen to teachers 

It would appear that, currently, there is a disconnect between teacher workforces across Australia, and the policy-makers with power over their conditions. Teacher workload has escalated under systems of devolved governance, prompting a resurgence in industrial action from teacher unions.

Presently, many teachers are grappling with the idea of returning to face-to-face teaching in a few weeks. While some (although notably not teachers) may be arguing adamantly for this return, many of the teachers we know are hesitant about once again being asked to enter an unsafe work environment, where an existing teacher shortage will undoubtedly be compounded by the rampant spread of the omicron variant and associated sick leave fallout – an issue which is affecting the teaching profession nationally.

With no casuals to call upon, those who are able to teach will only have to take on more to share the load. Or instead we may find ourselves in the position of, for example, Kansas in the United States, where 18 year old high school graduates with a background check will be able to step into classrooms to work as a substitute teacher, to fill the gaps in staffing created by COVID-19. 

And so, as we look upon the dawn of another new, uncertain, and likely difficult year in schools, it is high time that we listen to and support our teachers – or soon there may no longer be any qualified professionals left in our schools to listen to.  

Meghan Stacey is a former high school English and drama teacher and current lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. Meghan’s primary research interests sit at the intersection of sociological theory, policy sociology and the experiences of those subject to systems of education. Meghan’s PhD was conferred in April 2018. Meghan is on Twitter @meghanrstacey. Mihajla Gavin isa lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, and has worked as a senior officer in the public sector in Australia across various workplace relations advisory, policy and project roles.

Mihajla’s research is concerned with analysing the response of teacher unions to neoliberal education reform that has affected teachers’ conditions of work. Mihajla is on Twitter @Mihajla_Gavin

How the spirit of lockdown leaders prevailed in the crisis

This report is from the Educational Leadership SIG Symposium – Educational Leadership in crisis across Australia and New Zealand at #AARE2021, presented by Fiona Longmuir (Monash University) , Michelle Striepe & Christine Cunningham (Edith Cowan University), Sylvia Robertson (University of Otago) and David Gurr (University of Melbourne)

The experience of the pandemic is a significant and shared disruption and the ways that education has been led through crisis and uncertainty were explored in this symposium. 

Research has previously considered how educational leaders have guided their communities through crises of many descriptions and Michelle Striepe and Christine Cunningham first presented a scoping review that examined this prior body of work. They found that the evidence was limited and, as one would expect, covered a broad range of contexts and crises – earthquakes, bushfires, hurricanes as well as local crises such as unexpected deaths. The literature suggested that leading during a crisis is different and is tailored to the context and nature of the crisis (Hemmer & Elliff, 2020; Liou, 2015). 

Across this literature there was evidence that educational leadership during times of crisis involves: 

  • Leading responsively, instinctively and virtuously
  • Working through phases of reaction, management and recovery
  • Understanding the immediacy, urgency and complexity of the crisis and the resulting needs of the community.

From their review, emerged questions that were relevant to thinking about educational leadership through the COVID crisis. These are – 1) how we bound the concept of crisis, and the relationships between crises – for example, are we currently experiencing a health crisis within broader crises of environment and equity?  2) Do we see experiences of crisis as linear or are there constant cycles through phases of crisis that are influenced by the intensity of disruption? 3) How do culture, context and language shape experience of crisis?

The emergence, and persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis since early 2020 has been different across the three locations of the studies shared in the symposium- Melbourne and Perth in Australia and Dunedin in New Zealand. 

From Perth, we heard about a large Independent school that experienced 17 days of lockdown early in 2020 and the work of a school leader who brought a risk management disposition to his work (Striepe & Cunningham). 

In New Zealand, Harry, the principal at the centre of the case, shared his rapid responses and attention to the hauora (health and wellbeing) of the community as the threat that the pandemic might arrive loomed for many months (Roberston). 

The Melbourne study reported on interviews with eight school leaders conducted in mid-2020, which was in-between two long lockdowns. Here, common messages emerged about the need for care for the entire school community and the importance of timely and clear communication (Longmuir).

From across our three contexts, and in reflecting on the review of crisis literature, we saw some commonalities and some areas that raised more questions. 


The experiences of the pandemic were inequitable even within each school. Individual circumstances and situations came to the fore and leaders needed to understand and respond in supportive ways. Across our three locations, we noted that issues of social and economic advantage and disadvantage were important, and we know from emerging research across a broader range of contexts, that COVID-19 has laid bare the intensity and variety of inequalities, and the ways that education is involved in these.

Relational leadership

In most of our cases we noticed that the relational aspects of educational leadership came to the fore. It seemed that during a crisis, core purposes of human sociality were foregrounded – people cared about each other and educational leaders noticed a “coming together” of their communities in the face of the shared experience of adversity. 

Phases of crisis response 

The idea of phases of response was evident in the literature review and the factor of time is a really important one in any further thinking about how educational leaders have responded, managed and survived such an extended crisis. Reacting, responding and recovering stages were evident – but how has the rollercoaster of the pandemic experience blurred what might normally be thought of as a linear crisis journey through these stages

Crisis leadership practices

Many leadership practices that are thought to be important at any time were still identifiable in the work of the leaders we studied – what changed were the ways that these practices were combined in order to respond as needed for the unprecedented circumstances. 

In reflecting on some of the key messages across our research, Sylvia Robertson left us some important questions:

  • Are we seeing a shift from instructional leadership to a more relational approach with a social justice focus?
  • Has the pandemic highlighted equity issues to the extent that they cannot be ignored any longer?
  • Moving forward, will there be less concern with measurement of outcomes and greater focus on social inequities, care and innovation?

We agreed that the answers remain to be seen.

Fiona Longmuir lectures in Educational Leadership at Monash University and has over 20 years’ experience as a researcher and practising school leader. Her research interests include intersections between educational leadership and educational change with a particular focus on student voice and agency. She is working on projects investigating school leadership for social cohesion; leadership for unprecedented times; and student voice and agency in alternative educational settings. Find her on Twitter @LongmuirFiona and LinkedIn:


Hemmer, L., & Elliff, D. S. (2020). Leaders in action: The experiences of seven Texas superintendents before, during, and after Hurricane Harvey. Educational Management Administration & Leadership48(6), 964-985.

Liou, Y. H. (2015). School crisis management: A model of dynamic responsiveness to crisis life cycle. Educational Administration Quarterly51(2), 247-289.

Papers where some of the research is reported: 

Longmuir, F. (2021). Leading in lockdown: Community, communication and compassion in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Educational Management Administration & Leadership.

Striepe, M. and Cunningham, C. (2021), Understanding educational leadership during times of crises: a scoping review. Journal of Educational Administration, ahead-of-print. 

Seven great ways to connect with students during snap lockdowns

This research might be about students with added learning needs but could easily apply to all students.

The snap school lockdowns required to combat the Delta variant of Covid-19 disproportionately affect different cohorts of students and teachers. 

When the first school lockdowns were implemented in NSW in 2020, a group of researchers undertook a study to explore teachers’ perspectives of the impact of the COVID-19 distance learning requirements on the education of students with additional educational needs. We asked teachers about: the issues they experienced in the education of children with a disability during COVID 19; how they viewed their students’ connections with their peers; and any changes they made to the ways they teach because their students missed school.

We now know that earning preferences, the strength of existing social networks, and access to digital technologies and WIFI can impact students’ ability to successfully navigate distance learning. Teachers may grapple with modes of delivery, pedagogical structures, and the need to establish effective systems of communication (Hood, 2020).

School connectedness and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic may have served to exacerbate existing stressors faced by students with additional educational needs, those students with learning, physical or sensory needs that make it harder to learn than most children of the same age. Challenges at home for these students can include anxiety around sudden confinement, increased tension about the unpredictability of the future, and increased strain which some parents may experience to manage these students’ educational and social needs (Fontanesi et al. 2020).

School connectedness can be defined as incorporating a relationship with supportive adults, a sense of belonging, positive peer relationships, engagement with learning, and experiencing a safe and encouraging online climate (Cumming, Marsh, & Higgins 2017; García-Moya et al. 2019; Pate et al. 2017).

School connectedness can be seen as comprising four components: school bonding, school attachment, school engagement, and school climate. These components can be linked to the findings from the small qualitative study, which indicated four themes’ teachers found challenging when teaching students at home during COVID-19. These were access to materials, capacity and willingness to use technology, motivation and changes in routines, and risk of further isolation. This relationship is represented in Figure 1.

Figure 1. School connectedness paradigm and the relation to the four components of school connectedness during COVID19 for students with additional learning needs

Access to learning materials

Teachers commented that access was an issue for student learning when the schools shifted to an online model.

 In addition to the principal delivering laptops to students who could not get to school to access them, the teachers went over and above what was required, visiting a home to provide technical support.

One family said, “we do not know how to use the internet thing”. So I had to drive out to their house. It was little bit stressful. They brought the computer out to the veranda so I set it up for them and that was great because I knew they had an internet connection.

Capacity and willingness to use technology

Distance education can be challenging for students with additional educational needs as they are disconnected from their school-based learning. For some students this was problematic as they either refused to participate in online learning or were precluded from access to technology due to their homelife. These students who are already at a disadvantage were seen to be at risk of slipping even further behind.

It is really concerning that kids could fall behind. We will find out the full brunt of it for the kids who did not engage online at all when they are back. They are already behind the 8 ball. I think we will see a bigger divide. We tried, despite our best efforts we had kids who did not engage at all. . . . I reckon it would be 20% – definitely. They just did nothing – just played. The parents said that they just would not do it . . ..I think we will see kids have gone backwards.

Motivation and  changes in routines

Students who did not engage with learning in the classroom were also challenging to motivate when undertaking distance education.

The same students found learning at home challenging . . . They are very traumatised people here and those kids we are finding hard to engage are the ones with undiagnosed metal health and medical conditions. They are the same kids who are difficult to engage at home. We praise any effort – even logging on. I had in my google classroom question of the day. ‘What is the most awesome thing about not going to school today – just anything to get them to answer – cos then I made that connection and then try and lead them into a bit of work. It was the same kids. It was not a magic wand. It did not fix anybody. We gave it a go.

There can be difficulties connecting with school and learning when routines are changed. One of the teachers stated a concern in how students responded to the change in the learning context.

Some of my kids could not separate school and home and so I got them to put on their school uniform as if they were going to school still. Then they would take it off at the end of the day and school was finished.

Risks of further isolation and falling behind

Students who are disconnected from peers can become more socially isolated. In the scramble to keep up with the educational needs of students, we can easily overlook that students experience loneliness, worry and sadness (Brodeur et al. 2020).  The isolation experienced, as a result of lockdowns, can increase depression and anxiety (Guessoum et al., 2020).

Teachers expressed concern around the issue of social isolation for their students. Some of this concern was related to the erosion of the connectedness created by changes in routines that meant the students were less likely to want to be engaged in learning.

If you take Mandy, she can’t cope very well with any changes at school you know? And she doesn’t have a lot of kids that I would [say she could] socialise with at school, and so at home, I reckon it would be worse because when she gets stressed, she withdraws into her shell.

Despite the challenges, teachers overall held positive perceptions about how they supported students with additional educational needs at home. There was evidence of strong school leadership that was both supportive of staff and overtly visible for students and parents (e.g. regular Facebook postings). The teachers reported being committed to helping students who were at risk during this time.

Suggestions for connecting students with additional learning needs during snap lockdowns from our research: here are our top seven ways to stay connected with not only students with additional needs but ALL students.

  1. Plan for and support peer connectedness. This may involve arranging informal fun activities to foster social relationships and pairing students strategically with a buddy.
  2. Have a range of options for learning. There can be a challenge with access to online learning tools and materials, in particular for students with disabilities. Access to physical resources can be especially important for students with additional educational needs.
  3. Strive to ensure that school routines are sustained at home (e.g. consistent timetables and the wearing of school uniform).
  4. Keep in contact with parents where students are reluctant to communicate via online media. Strive to ensure that communication is consistent and frequent. Effective communication between school and home is a critical element in a successful response to remote schooling. Be mindful that in some circumstances overly frequent communication may overwhelm both students and their families.
  5. Attempt alternative means to directly communicate with each student that might be specific to their needs (e.g. telephone calls).
  6. Strive to maintain relationships for the well-being of students and teachers. This connection can address mental health.  
  7. There may be additional provision of specialist services warranted. This support may occur through supplementary planning meetings with parents and key service providers. Consider alternative mechanisms to ensure connection and collaboration with specialists. Students who are isolated at home are at risk of not being offered specialist services because of the separation between school and home.

Clockwise from top left: Dr Angela Page has worked as an educational psychologist in Australia and New Zealand. She currently lectures in Special and Inclusive Education at the University of Newcastle in NSW. Associate Professor Jennifer Charteris is an experienced researcher and teacher educator, with a background in providing professional learning for principals, middle leaders, and teachers in leadership, assessment, and culturally responsive practice. She has schooling experience in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. Dr Joanna Anderson is an experienced teacher, school leader and academic. She is interested in inclusive practice and leadership and works to improve the educational experiences of students with disabilities. Dr Chris Boyle is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is an Associate Professor in Inclusive Education and Psychology at the University of Exeter.

Why we must abandon the 2021 HSC now

A  stop-start directive to return to schools has been going on for over a month and produced anxieties for teachers, students and their families. 

How can we respond to the confusion this has produced, particularly regarding Year 12 students? The argument mounted here is that there really is only one way to respond and that is from an equity perspective. 

Abandon this year’s HSC examination and – with universities, unions, curriculum associations, teachers and principal organizations – develop pathway responses that can take account of different assessment practices.

This means looking at the situation from the least empowered by addressing barriers through what might be called affirmative action. In this case that means acting in a way that responds to students who are disadvantaged. Even at a general level all students have experienced what no other has before: two years of interrupted learning. This is, after all, a once in a century pandemic. The HSC is not a set of exams at the end of one year, it is two years of assessments where the examination is but one element. Those two years for the current cohort have been tragically upended by last year’s lockdown and now this year’s lockdown. There is no issue with the lockdown, as we want everyone safe. The problem is the intransigence of the NSW government in not being flexible enough to think this through in other ways.

Sydney Catholic Schools executive director Tony Farley called for school-based assessments to replace exams. He argued from an equity perspective that disadvantaged students lacked access to adequate resources. This was rejected outright by the minister and NESA thus demolishing the first principle of democratic participation – the right to representation. Comparing the second year of COVID to what happened in Victoria or Britain last year is comparing apples and oranges. This is two years of disruption and may continue. The uncertainty is what needs to be ended.

In appealing for the HSC to proceed the Premier of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian, harnessed her migrant background and the importance of this exam in the trajectory of her success, and therefore other migrants. While there is some truth in this narrative, for many this just isn’t the case. Gone are the days when students chose to stay on for academic reasons. Most now must stay on and not all consider the HSC the golden pathway to their imagined futures. This argument also papers over the enormous differences within and across migrant communities. Evidence suggests that a lack of devices in refugee families has seriously interrupted schooling. Some teachers report teaching to two students jammed in front of one screen in the middle of a lounge room with other siblings present. Many reports of refugee and migrant families having difficulty with online learning are also documented.

Yet it is not migrants only that are impacted. Students who are neurologically and physically diverse have had less than their normal level of support. There is also the emotional and psychological impact of lockdowns on others, reported to have skyrocketed this lockdown. Whether it is the student or their family is irrelevant here given the close living and lack of escape from sometimes very close living quarters. This leads to a second failure of a democracy, and that is justice: every person has a right to just, fair and equitable treatment.

There are other questions about marking practical work such as music, drama, art and dance. Normally itinerant teachers travel but with restrictions out of Sydney on movement what is happening? Is video doing this? How equitable is the current arrangement? This leads to the other thorny question of vaccination. Are itinerant teachers vaccinated? In the middle of all this is another failure; to vaccinate frontline workers such as teachers. In other parts of the world, they were part of the first batch to be vaccinated but not here despite UNESCO calling for them to be prioritized globally. Not valued enough. Now, when the Delta variant has made schools “just perfect” as a vehicle for transmission, we are left wanting.

Who are the disadvantaged? This cannot be answered through simple categories based on ability, socio-economic status or ethnicity because we will find exceptions in all cases. Let’s turn the gaze and ask the question: who are advantaged? There seems to be some lack of decision-making around those who get vaccinated and those who don’t for one thing. As yet we won’t know what happens to those who aren’t vaccinated. Most of the rhetoric around keeping the HSC going has been from the perspective of the ‘ideal student’; one who is self-directed, prepared, committed, in control, and of course, in a home with emotional, social and technological support. We know some of these, such as the young men allowed to travel during a lockdown for their important camp experience.

What can be done? 

As I argued earlier,  we should abandon this year’s HSC examination and – with universities, unions, curriculum associations, teachers and principal organizations – develop pathway responses that can take account of different assessment practices. We really have no choice. We can’t send thousands of private and selective school students travelling all over Sydney in two weeks’ time and we don’t know if the students living in the heart of Sydney in hard lockdown will be able to move around at all. 

There are countless pathways available to TAFE and universities already. These can be tweaked to incorporate short courses where knowledge and skills can be demonstrated leading to entry if school-based assessments have gaps. Universities such as my own have developed pathways based on Year 11 results as well as strong support systems for first year students so if they are in the wrong course or struggling, they are given support to know if they want to continue or not. Others moving to workplaces, apprenticeships and TAFE could also be accommodated with broad based representation involving consultation and some imagination. Who knows, we might even develop a new way forward that caters for a different world.

Everyone has been impacted so the support for this cohort has to be broad. Why not tap into community goodwill? We are all in the same boat. Teachers, as professionals, have not been given much space to demonstrate their capacities but have been providing what they can as they too struggle with lockdown, their own family’s needs and a lack of consultation. Let’s look after the least empowered and the collective goodwill flowing from this will serve us well. Business as usual just isn’t working.

Carol Reid is a sociologist of education in the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University. Carol’s research explores processes of globalisation and mobilities on youth, ethnicity and race and the intersections of these social identities with the changing nature of teacher’s work. Current research is concerned with Settlement Outcomes of Syrian Conflict Refugees and cosmopolitan theory for education. Carol received her PhD and BA (Hons) from Macquarie University in Sociology and was a teacher prior to these studies for 13 years. 

Pandemic Collection: Reflections on inequities amplified by the COVID-19 global crisis

The pieces in this collection are our reflections on the ongoing inequities in education that have been amplified or illuminated by the COVID-19 global crisis. We hope our reflections help readers consider how education work might respond to and address these inequities.

All of these pieces were written during early May 2020—prior to the death of George Floyd and the global movement that ensued. Though the reflections in the collection predate George Floyd’s killing, many of the issues raised in this collection are part of the same unequal system that produces Blak/Black death, through the virus and beyond.

We are all staff or higher degree research students from the Social Transformations and Education Research Group at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

Our pieces meditate on the ways the teacher has been positioned through the crisis and what this says about how our society sees teachers (Amy McKernan); the many roles played by schools in the pursuit of mass schooling (Nicky Dulfer); the politics of expertise (Jessica Gerrard); schools futures and Indigenous history (Ligia (Licho) López López); possibilities for investing in community as key to education (Sophie Rudolph); opportunities for rethinking the local in relation to global problems (Rhonda Di Biase and Bonita Cabiles); and the importance of attempting to understand each student’s emotional life and journey in supporting learning communities (Michelle Cafini).

Our Pivoting Teachers By Amy McKernan

So what does “mass schooling” mean to us now? By Nicky Dulfer

Saving education: Trust me I’m an expert By Jessica Gerrard

Ancestral 2020 vision: Chronicle of a death foretold By Ligia (Licho) López López

Here’s our chance to refocus on education for community, not just for the economy By Sophie Rudolph

Turning global adversity into advantage: Working towards education for all By Rhonda Di Biase and Bonita Cabiles

Which boat were you in? by Michelle Cafini

Our pivoting teachers

By Amy McKernan

In my job I teach teachers. Some of my students are working to qualify as teachers, some are teachers already established in the profession. This semester, I have been deeply concerned for my students who also teach. They worked through the term one holidays to accommodate two possible futures – a return to school as we knew it and an about-face to distance learning.

They ‘pivoted’, and now they must ‘pivot’ again. They sit in my webinars with grey faces, tired and quiet, somehow still submitting assignments amongst all of this. Somehow, they are still determined to become more knowledgeable, more skilled, and better teachers.

My teacher students have worked even longer hours than before, implementing a whole new way of teaching, and redeveloping months and years of planning for a completely different world. They have drawn on considerable reserves of expertise and ingenuity to keep their school students learning, all the while closely monitoring wellbeing, and performing the emotional labour of caring.

I have watched over the weeks as the teachers in my classes have become withdrawn, resigned to the fact that they were the last to be considered in this global pandemic, that the decision to close schools appeared to be based not on the possible threat to teachers’ wellbeing, but on the economic wellbeing of families who must work and the safety of grandparents who might need to babysit.

I’m not suggesting that the needs of families should not be a factor in decision-making, of course they should. But the silence on teachers’ safety, including the safety of the many immunocompromised teachers, has been deafening. No one seems to acknowledge the likely mental and physical health issues teachers face as they managed the increased workload of teaching students both in and out of the classroom.

There has been an implicit assumption that teachers will take up a significant burden in this crisis. As is so often the case, teachers have little agency and little voice in making the big decisions that affect them. The evident lack of concern for teachers throughout the discussions of school closures has been so sadly reflective of the disrespect afforded to the profession in this country that I supposed I shouldn’t be shocked.

Most of us, including the parents currently supervising the schooling of their children at home, do not have a great deal of insight into the demands of teaching. If we did, teaching would be among the highest paid professions in the country, without question. It is my hope that in the future, when COVID-19 is a memory and the economy is returning to life, the students who are now witnessing their teachers’ innovations are learning that actually no, not just anyone (your parents) can do what teachers do. I hope the respect teachers truly deserve will grow.

I hope eventually we will see clearly the sacrifices teachers made during this crisis (and the way they were sacrificed). I hope we start to understand how important teachers are, and value them enough to stop sacrificing them in the name of economic gain. I hope, ultimately, those exhausted teachers sitting quietly in my webinars will, at last, receive the respect befitting their status as some of Australia’s most essential workers.

Dr Amy McKernan is an early career academic at the Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. Her research broadly investigates teaching and learning with confronting histories and narratives of trauma, violence and injustice. She is a teacher educator in the sociology of education, international education, and educational research methodologies.

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So what does “mass schooling” mean to us now?

By Nicky Dulfer

For the first time in my living memory, onsite school attendance has had to cease. Mass schooling, which has been described as a way of providing universal educational access through school attendance, has been disrupted in Australia and around the world. 

We have closed schools and opted for distance and remote learning models to help contain the spread of COVID-19.  For the vast majority of our 3.8 million students, this involves students attempting to learn in their home environments with their teachers providing content, support and feedback remotely.

As a result of school closures in Australia many people are just discovering how many roles schools fulfil.  To students in unsafe homes, schools can provide sanctuary; to the hungry, food; to the homeless, shelter; to the scared, security; to the lonely, friendship; and to the isolated, a sense of belonging.  For those of us who have worked in disadvantaged school settings this is not surprising.  Schools have long been a proxy home for many students.  School libraries can create safe places to sit quietly and read, school breakfast clubs can ensure everyone has the chance to eat something at the beginning of the day, school homework clubs can provide equipment and staff to support students who need some extra help, and school teachers can provide a valued adult relationship for students who seek connection and support. This is not to say that everything about mass schooling is positive.

To many students attending school can mean isolation, bullying, violence and ridicule.  It can mean being taught to be ashamed of personal cultural heritage and difference.  It can be a place that is not safe or inclusive.  For many students, schools are just another place in which they are not valued.

Mass schooling has meant that schools are also often sought after as places to institute certain political agendas. Governments have long understood this.  In the 1970s the Whitlam government instituted the Disadvantaged Schools Program as a way of ensuring schools could help support those students who needed it most. Until the 1980s students used to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ at every assembly as way of ensuring the Colonial past erased all that had gone before.  The Howard government offered additional financial support to schools if they flew the Australian flag.  Mass schooling is also seen as a way of instituting social agendas as schools are a way of reaching all students.  In the 1950s the Menzies government, concerned with malnutrition among children, instituted the school milk program.  In the 2000s concerns around obesity led to significant changes in what is available at the school canteen. Now, students all around the world are being educated on the correct way to wash their hands in classrooms.

Thus, school sites are often used to perpetuate both helpful and harmful political and social agendas.

In the time of COVID-19 one thing that has become very clear is the dependence of modern society on mass schooling.  The provision of mass schooling serves the dual economic function of allowing parents to work whilst educating their children to be useful to the workforce in the future. It also serves the social function of transmitting the social norms of society to students.  Additionally, mass schooling has been used as a place in which equity has been supported.

I believe one of the few good things to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is the revitalised conversation within our communities about what it is that mass schooling does, can and should do.

Nicky Dulfer is a Senior Lecturer at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. Her research areas of expertise include issues of inequality and pedagogy within secondary education.

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Saving education: Trust me I’m an expert

By Jessica Gerrard

Dr Norman Swan comes on the radio and I shush my partner. Dr Norman Swan has become a national treasure.

COVID-19 is apparently going to save experts. After years of the apparent growth of ‘populism’ and of the political denial of climate change, it appears it has taken this horrendous virus to demonstrate the utility of expert knowledge.

In the absence of political leadership, in the days and weeks after COVID-19 made its way to Australian shores, it was Dr Norman Swan – ABC Radio National’s health editor – who interpreted and disseminated the medical evidence on COVID-19. It is, of course, experts who are racing to find a vaccine and providing medical care.

Meanwhile, the Australian government has kept universities out of its cornerstone JobKeeper policy, throwing casuals – and the higher education sector – to the curb. There’s even reports of universities asking volunteers to cover teaching because of staff cuts. For permanent staff workloads have increased and universities (and the sector’s union) have already put pay slashes on the table.  

In these sorts of moments, a defensive move is understandable: we have to save education, right? Higher education, after all, is the place in which experts are produced. And isn’t now, of all times, the time to be protecting and nurturing the production of expertise? Defending the worth of and possibility for education for our future?

Expertise, however, is neither neutral nor categorical. Experts do not float disinterestedly above social relations. They are made by society and they have a vested interest in making particular versions of society. Eugenics, phrenology, conversion therapy, hysteria diagnoses – and dare I say it, even JobKeeper – were all driven to some degree by experts.

Expertise rests upon divisions between experts and so-called ‘laypeople’, and this division is marked by power. It also rests upon structural inequalities of education. Despite the vast expansion of higher education, contemporary society is built on a fallacy, not actuality, of social mobility for all. Hierarchical divisions in educational achievement are the bedrock of educational institutions, as are inequitable divisions in labour.

COVID-19 is apparently going to save experts, but it is cleaners who are saving us all.

Expertise is not just about producing knowledge: it is also practiced in relation to the ‘unknown’. The boundaries between the known and unknown are shaped by what we think it is possible to know about; what the social, technological and political relations of the day make possible to know about; and what is strategically denied (*cough* climate change).

COVID-19 demonstrates that the current moment is not defined by a withering of expertise, but its reconfiguration in relation to what is known and unknown (and asserted to be known and unknown) in the function of modern capitalist democracies.

Indeed, the recent proposals that materially de-value the humanities and social sciences demonstrate that the current Australian government is centrally concerned with the form and function of expertise. In this proposed reform particular forms of expertise are recognised as valuable above others.

Moreover, it’s no coincidence that at the time of rising post-truth there is concurrent fetishization of evidence and data. Particularly in education, data metrics are increasingly valued political assets: university and journal rankings, student evaluation surveys, impact scores, citation rates, h-indexes are all presented as numerical proxies for the value of university work.

So, what exactly are we saving? What education are we declaring an interest in for the future?

Perhaps at the very least, not one that unthinkingly asserts expertise as an unproblematic elixir. And not one that presumes that the production of expertise necessarily relies on divisions in labour and systems of meritocracy that structurally require unequal access to education and outcomes of it.

Shush, Dr Norman Swan is back on the radio.

Dr Jessica Gerrard researches the changing formations, and lived experiences, of social inequalities in relation to education, activism, work and unemployment. She works across the disciplines of sociology, history and policy studies with an interest in critical methodologies and theories.

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Ancestral 2020 vision: Chronicle of a death foretold

By Ligia (Licho) López López

Part II

Wati’t, will you tell me the rest of that origin story?

The one where another life begins in the future.

Right. The story of a future inhabited by peculiar beings who will call themselves Humans. Thousands of years from now, in the year 2020 entities from the virus world will decimate thousands of them. Humans will be forced to flee. They will mistakenly think of the virus in the only frame they know: War. So in the first months of a rising decade in the 21st century, they will wake up and will feel as if bombs were dropped on them as they have dropped bombs on others. With no time to pack their bags stuffed with Human supremacy, and the rest of their useless belongings including belonging itself, they will lose being and becoming Human.

What will those planes of existence look like Wati’t?

Full of wonder and wilderness! At first they will be afraid of what they will encounter. With no Normal saint or Economy god to misguide their existence, they will be swept with bewilderment. The first thing they will realize is that they are just one more element of an endless constellation and not the centre of it. Some of the cleverest ones, well they will not be that clever, really! but some of them will smuggle their useless concept of the Individual which will have no currency in other planes. Their existence will be relational. Upon entry to these unfamiliar planes of existence, Humans will disappear and become a collective of moving particles. Friction, magnetism, and sonic waves, not Identities, Borders, or Institutions, will characterize their movements in the new planes.

Remember that genius Human invention they called Schools? Well before being forced by the 2020 virus entity to flee the world as they knew it, Schools were Institutions. In these planes Schools will be sites of encounter. They will be located throughout and will not require a building called “school” for learning to take place. Because some habits are hard to die, some of them will invoke obsolete modern ideas to say “schools are the best place for children to learn.” But the majority of them having learned the lessons from the 2020 pandemic will ask: To learn what? To learn how? To learn whose knowledges? Can knowledges be owned? What counts as learning? What learning counts? Where, with what, and with whom can learning take place? In the new plane of existence, they will realize that moulding children into rubrics, test scores, statistics, international comparative data, and the next capitalist battalion of citizens will bring their demise. It will by 2020 and will again after 2020.

Instead of learning to become settler colonialists, at the site of encounter children will teach and learn about colonialism and the history that forced them to seek refuge in new planes of existence. Instead of taking, children will learn to borrow and give back in full respect of the sentient beings they will be in commune with. Children will return to their wilderness without the Human fear of “being backward” or “falling behind.” That will be pre 2020 history. Colour codes for children’s bodies will no longer be the norm. In fact, there will be no norms, gender or otherwise. There will not even be ‘children’ as the category upon which ‘adults’ manage and attempt to control the/their futures. Through wondering into the histories of human grids and classificatory regimes through online or VR learning, they will regain a sense of humility. That will be the ultimate social and emotional learning lesson resulting in new worlds unfolding. How marvellous!

Maltyox wati’t

Dr López López is a Caribbean, Queer, and Brown scholar of Indigenous background whose life begins in Abya Yala. She has lived, researched, taught, and learned in continental Africa, Europe, the US, and Australia. Her interdisciplinary research is situated at the intersection of curriculum studies, Indigenous and race studies in education, and youth and visual studies.

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Here’s our chance to refocus on education for community, not just for the economy

By Sophie Rudolph

On my daily local walk I pass a primary school which now has a sign on the gate saying there is limited access to the school while remote learning is in place. The ‘learning from home’ situation has meant parents and carers have been asked to supervise and facilitate learning that is set out and guided by teachers remotely. Teachers have been asked to transform their lessons and connect with students and families in unfamiliar ways, many going to extra lengths to reach those who have limited digital resources at home.

In recent decades education has become highly focused on the product of learning – NAPLAN results, PISA results, ATARs, marks and degrees are tallied, scrutinised, lamented, celebrated and compared. This focus on product both overshadows the process of learning and undermines education as a social good – in and of itself valuable. It can easily position teachers as technicians and students and parents as consumers, concerned primarily with their own individual success. However, education is much more than this and rarely is the lived reality of education so stark and straightforward.

During the COVID-19 pandemic children and young people have been frequently positioned as an inconvenience – the supervision and care they require being seen as an impediment to ‘restarting the economy’. The government was quick to push for learning to be transferred back to schools so that parents/carers can be freed to return to their roles within the economy. However, this overlooks the unpaid and underpaid labour that is done under regular circumstances to support the economy.

The lessons of this time therefore offer opportunities for valuing and nurturing some of the parts of education that have been disregarded by the shift to focus on educational product. A post-pandemic education system could take seriously what feminist global studies historian Tithi Bhattacharya argues are the ‘life-making’ activities of social reproduction. This is work that is largely done by women or in highly feminised professions and it is work of a social nature, not purely an economic nature. It is the process and relational aspects of education, not the product. Imagine if we thought about children and young people as important, thoughtful and valuable members of our society now, rather than just future workers getting in the way of the economy. 

If education were to value community more thoroughly, we might see greater time in schools spent building relationships with local First Nations communities to nurture understanding and awareness of Indigenous knowledge. We might see teachers, students and local community collaborating more to find solutions to problems affecting their communities. We might see curriculum that valued the funds of knowledge that children and young people have for pursuing their learning outcomes rather than waiting for NAPLAN or ATARs to tell us what students can and can’t do. We might recognise that the job of teaching involves emotional work and that teachers require time to recharge so they don’t burn out and leave the profession. We might think about restructuring work so that communities – teachers, students, families, carers and friends – have more time to come together more often to share in the process of learning and living together.

We could take a lead from young people who ask us to imagine what is possible, and work collaboratively to cultivate education communities that care for the human and more than human world, and not just for their ATAR outcomes and unfettered economic growth.

Dr Sophie Rudolph is a Lecturer at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at The University of Melbourne. Her research and teaching interests centre on issues of education equity, politics and ethics, through historical and sociological analyses.

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Turning global adversity into advantage: Working towards education for all

By Rhonda Di Biase and Bonita Cabiles

When listening to an expert panel talking about COVID-19, one particular comment resonated with us: “We will learn a lot about the virus, but we will learn more about ourselves”.  The subsequent discussion referred to our learning as people, as communities and as nations. We add to this, learning as a global community, and we reflect on this here.

In discussing the race to find a vaccine, this same panel highlighted differences in the way this particular global challenge has resulted in an international collective effort. A spirit of collaboration, not competition, has developed in the race against the virus.  Can this global momentum to collaborate be harnessed in new and creative ways in a post-COVID world? 

So too does this question apply to our vision for the world we want post pandemic.  Can we continue to work together in unprecedented ways?  Can our common goal become to realise the vision embedded in the United Nations’ globally endorsed Sustainable Development Goals?These goals include no poverty, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, quality education, gender equality, and reduced inequalities. This pandemic provides impetus for a more deliberative discourse around issues of equity in education, including how we ‘do aid,’ without reverting to business-as-usual. The vision embedded within the Sustainable Development Goals offers fertile ground for international interdependence working towards education for all.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a disruption to the status quo of schooling that has exposed more sharply the cracks of education, especially among the most vulnerable. It has powerfully cast a bright light in many countries on what seems to be a perpetual state of crisis in education.

However, financing, which is a key to bridging educational inequities, remains compromised. In the latest UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report, Sustainable Development Goals Secretary-General, Jeffrey Sachs, laments the sobering decline of development aid for education. In the aftershocks of COVID-19, will the global community be willing to work in a spirit of cooperation to ensure equitable education for all; or do we, instead, become inwardly focused and leaner and meaner as nation-states?

Our question is not unfounded. In news about international cooperation in developing a vaccine for COVID-19 the focus of discussion is already around who or which countries will get access. Will access to any successful vaccine depend on money or kindness, on power or a sense of equity and justice?  We ask similar questions about education and aid. We fear that as countries tighten their geographical borders and focus on impending recessions and debt and deficit; the sense of compassion, care, and solidarity may also end within their borders.  Low and middle-income countries, after the pandemic will, more than ever, need to work within a global community as they advance their respective national/local agendas of equity, justice, and inclusion in education, that have been exposed through this pandemic.

Local contexts offer extensive experiences and knowledge about how we can (re)think and (re)imagine collaboration to respond to and acknowledging the long-standing educational crisis that COVID-19 has pushed us to confront. Within this discourse, perhaps it is also time to foreground the voices of the local communities to construct ‘glo/b/cal’ cooperation, whereby local conditions are centred in global initiatives and international development.

Rhonda Di Biase is a lecturer at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne. She is currently a co-convener for the AARE Global Contexts for Education SIG.  She has previously worked at the Faculty of Education, Maldives National University as part of a post-tsunami aid project focusing on implementing student-centred learning and through an Endeavour Executive Fellowship. Her research interests include active learning reform, teachers’ professional learning and education reform in small states.

Bonita Cabiles is currently a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne. She is currently a co-convener for the AARE Cultural and Linguistic Diversity (CALD) SIG. Her work explores issues of diversity and power in classroom practices with interest in Bourdieuian sociology and qualitatively oriented research.

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Which boat were you in?

By Michelle Cafini

American evangelical Christian pastor, Rick Warren, in his video, ‘Ten COVID commandments for emotional health’ states that long after a vaccine has been developed, people will still be dealing with the economic, relational and emotional effect of the virus. His words resonated with me when he said although we have all been in the same storm, people have been in different boats during the storm. Some in yachts, where they have had enough money, a secure job and a nice home to live in during the crisis. Some have been in rowboats, living week to week off savings and where being jobless has been a disaster. Others have been clinging to driftwood, experiencing homelessness, domestic abuse, and alcoholism to name but a few of the consequences of COVID-19.

As schools across the nation begin to re-open after a period of online learning, and staff busily adjust back to face-to-face teaching, it is important to reflect that things will not be “the same” as before. Teachers will be considering the social and emotional wellbeing of their students as they re-commence schooling in person. Things will not and may never be the “same” for some students. The experiences that students have had over the past few weeks and months will be different. While some students may have thrived at home, for others there may be deep emotional scars that may take a long time to heal – the death or illness of a family member, the arguments overheard between parents dealing with the ramifications of unemployment, increased alcohol consumption in the home, anger and abuse that manifested while families were in lock-down, the loss of self-esteem and social skills that are usually being developed during interactions with friends. All of these factors may have a considerable impact on the lives of different students, and the once happy, resilient, confident student in January may not present in the same way in July.

School leaders and teachers will be mindful of the boat their students have travelled in during the storm and may need to provide support for those who have lost their bearings. More than ever, embedding social and emotional learning into the curriculum is important. Young students who were just starting school may need support to foster friendships. Those who have spent lengthy time with caregivers may feel the anxiety of separation and will need to once again develop confidence and trust at school. Students who were just in the throes of transitioning from primary to secondary school and only just adapting to new expectations and routines may need to be assisted to develop social and self-management skills. And those at the end of their school journey may need the motivation to set course again. While many teachers would have been cognizant to look out for this at the beginning of a new year, teachers will be observing their students through a new lens, knowing that the experience of isolation will have had some impact – for some positive, for others not.

When the bell rings, it will never be back to the way it was. When the boats come back into the shore and schooling resumes in its entirety, teachers will be confronting the journey each child has been on. School may be the safe harbour that many of them are needing.

Dr Michelle Cafini has recently commenced employment at the University of Melbourne, teaching units in the Master of International Education (IB). She has over 30 years of experience teaching and leading schools in Victoria and overseas.

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The shock of dealing with Covid-19 has made teachers even stronger and better at their craft

Cast your mind back to the end of the first school term for 2020: Australian states and territories were rapidly moving into lockdown because of COVID-19. Political leaders were signaling – often using mixed signals – the likelihood and need to close schools and transition to distance learning. Here in New South Wales schools switched to distance learning for about six weeks, forcing teachers to adapt their programs very rapidly to support students and their parents with learning from home.

Currently around Australia we now have the whole range from fully face-to -face schooling, to partially remote learning, to fully (with some essential worker exceptions) remote learning. Random schools are thrown into immediate lockdown whenever a teacher or student tests positive to the viral infection. Teachers pivot their programs very rapidly between the different ways of delivery depending on the advice from health officials to their education authorities.

My doctoral research explores the way policy is enacted in teacher practice, and I seem to have landed in the middle of a system where policy has flown into flux.

My fieldwork actually started in the midst of one crisis – the Black Summer bushfires – and ended during another – COVID-19. I was fortunately able to modify the shape of my research to allow for interviews with teachers to find out how they experienced the rapidly changing work environment during the virus response.

I’m sure some of the findings are familiar to many teachers and researchers out there, and they aren’t specific to schools. For many people, the switch to working from home was sudden and required quick thinking and adaptation.

The teachers who participated in my research reported a number of interesting, and not all negative, experiences.

Workload increased dramatically

Teachers already faced significant workload demands going into the crisis, an issue plainly described in a partnership study between the NSW Teachers Federation and the University of Sydney. The teachers I interviewed explained how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this big time.

Teachers spend a huge amount of time planning and programming a school term, and much of that planning is premised on the physical environment in which they work. Educators take for granted the material contexts of their work – it helps them to improvise when necessary, to draw on a repertoire of skills and capabilities built up through experience.

In the Sydney school where I did my research the staff made a very rapid shift to online learning. This led to late nights preparing lessons, in some cases over-planning work for students in order to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction.

Some students felt more comfortable online

A number of teachers reported some students coming out of their shells in the online space. Otherwise shy students felt more empowered to contribute to lessons. Students with strong digital literacy skills were able to support teachers and fellow students in creating dynamic and interesting contributions to online learning.

While there has rightly been some attention paid to students who missed out because of inequitable access, there are also lessons that can be learned about engaging students who are less confident about speaking up in front of a classroom of peers. The digital world is here to stay: being confident learners in digital communities is an important life skill, virus or not.

Professional communities were more important than ever

The staff at the school scheduled an impromptu staff development day focused entirely on delivering learning remotely. Colleagues ran sessions on platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Faculty members headed to different classrooms to practice running Zoom lessons with each other. The New South Wales Department of Education also facilitated a ‘virtual staff room’ on Teams, and many teachers reported the value in sharing ideas with their colleagues both within the school and further afield.

When I spoke with the Deputy Principal of this school, he suggested that their quick response to COVID-19 was possible because of the school’s proactive approach to professional learning. The school saw the Professional Development Planning (PDP) process not as a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise, but rather a way to learn about the strengths and opportunities facing the school. He explained:

“What professional learning is about is foreseeing what obstacles might lie ahead, so that you can be properly prepared for when they do happen and you couldn’t get a better case in point than COVID.”

A year-round professional learning calendar helps staff at this school see the connection between their own Professional Development Planning and the whole school plan. Qualitative analysis of Professional Development Planning goals and professional learning needs helps inform the school planning process. And the teachers I interviewed were consistently engaged in improving their classroom practice.

Teachers felt their practice had improved because of the crisis

Each teacher I spoke with said that they had learned something during the crisis and that their practice going forward would improve as a result, sentiment echoed in a survey conducted by researchers Rachel Wilson and William Mude. This included their ability to incorporate Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into their lessons, the different ways they can engage with their students, and their professional knowledge in the domain of online teaching and learning. As one teacher explained:

“I think there will be good development in our skills that will make us better teachers going forward. It’s been a baptism of fire, but I think we’ll all be better practitioners and have a wider repertoire of skills.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned a lot of things on their heads: it is a black swan event, something gigantic and unexpected that shifts the way we understand the world. Nassim Taleb, who wrote the book, The Black Swan, followed that with another book, Antifragile. He explains that the opposite of fragility is not resilience, but antifragility: where something responds to a shock by getting stronger.

The teachers I worked with pre and post COVID-19 (as far as we can say that we are ‘post’ this virus) are a perfect example of antifragility. So far, 2020 has delivered some of the biggest shocks imaginable. And out of it the teachers in my study have become even better at their craft thanks to the strength of their professional communities and their school’s meaningful approach to professional learning.

Pat Norman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, looking at the way politics and political events shape the rationalities of policy and practice. He is particularly interested in the way neoliberalism and globalisation impact professional work. His current research in schools looks at the way teachers experience and enact policy, and how an understanding of good practice is produced in real-world contexts. He tweets as @pat_norman.

COVID-19 and school closures – what the research says we should be doing

Schools in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia will go pupil free from Monday, taking only children of essential workers. I have been having a close look at the available research and evidence on school closures and the COVID-19 pandemic, and I am wondering why there is no urgent national call to close all Australian schools to pupils, and certainly why it has taken this long for state authorities to begin to shut down their schools.

Internationally there are now 140 countries with full national school closures, if there is evidence to support keeping schools open, then it is unknown to large swathes of the planet.

Research suggests the potential of school closures to provide reductions in disease and mortality is moderated by the timing of school closures. Early closures, particularly early reactive (in response to school cases) and gradual closures, are associated with stronger positive effects. This is evident even in recent, hot-off-the-press, COVID19 research from France.

Leaving closure until things look grim, near or after the epidemic peak, means that they are likely to be less effective in slowing the disease.

School closures do bring very substantial costs to the economy, and risks to the education and welfare of many children. Some also argue that they curtail our response to the virus, by adding additional burdens on parents who may be working against the pandemic.  These considerations, and strategies to mitigate them, must be weighed against the potential of school closures to delay and reduce virus transmission.

However, if you delve into the research evidence outlining the effects of school closures – and extrapolate the research effects to the current mortality rates for the COVID19 epidemic the number of lives that could be saved is staggering.

Research evidence on school closures and novel influenza outbreaks

There are two recent systematic reviews on this. A systematic review is a comprehensive trawl and review of research evidence. Most of these reviews also apply research quality criteria to the research found, so that only research that meets a minimum quality benchmark can be considered in the synthesis of evidence on the topic at hand.

The first systemic review I want to tell you about was published in 2018. It examined school closure in response to novel flu epidemics and included recent studies examining the impact of school closures on the 2009 Novel Flu epidemic in Mexico, the US and elsewhere. This review examined 668 research articles and synthesised findings for 31 high quality studies. Primary conclusions of the review are:

  • An average 30% reduction in the peak of the epidemic
  • School closure BEFORE the epidemic peak reduces the overall burden of the epidemic
  • Earlier implementation can delay the epidemic peak as well as reduce it.
  • The longer the school closure the longer the delay on the epidemic peak.
  • School closure is correlated with virus ‘attack rate’ and a longer infectiveness duration.

Another review examined different closure strategies and performed a model-based analysis of the effectiveness of four types of school closure for influenza outbreaks. Closure models ranged from the nationwide closure of all schools at the same time, to county/district closures, to reactive (in response to school cases) and gradual closures (starting from class-by-class, then grades and finally the whole school).

The review found that, under specific constraints on the average number of weeks lost per student, reactive school-by-school, gradual, and county-wide closure gave comparable outcomes – all provided infection attack rate reduction, peak incidence reduction and peak delay. Optimal implementations for flu required relatively short closures, with just a one-week closure enough to break the transmission chain without unnecessary disruption.

Optimal length of closure might be very different for COVID19 given its long, two-week, latency, high transmission rate and pandemic status. However, the researchers broadly conclude:

“policy makers could consider school closure policies more diffusely as response strategy to influenza epidemics and pandemics, and the fact that some countries already have some experience of gradual or regional closures for seasonal influenza outbreaks demonstrates that logistic and feasibility challenges of school closure strategies can be to some extent overcome”.

In just published research on COVID19 in France, it was found:

school closure alone would have limited benefit in reducing the peak incidence (less than 10% reduction with 8-week school closure for regions in the early phase of the epidemic). When coupled with 25% adults teleworking, 8-week school closure would be enough to delay the peak by almost 2 months with an approximately 40% reduction of the case incidence at the peak. This is critical to reduce the burden on the healthcare system in the weeks of highest demand. Moderate overall reduction of the final attack rate (15%) would also be achieved.”

The same research found:

Real-time evaluation of currently adopted measures in France, as well as lessons learnt from the experiences of other countries implementing stricter policies (e.g. closing commercial activities and forbidding all sport and leisure activities, as in Italy and Belgium) will become crucial in the next few weeks to inform interventions and recommendations adapted to the evolving epidemic situation in the country.


If school closure is stopped too early, a rebound effect with an acceleration in the generation of new cases is likely to occur, as known from previous studies6. Here we assumed telework to last for the full simulation; its feasibility still needs to be assessed. If telework [*] is stopped after a certain period, a rebound effect is expected in this case too, due to the increase of social contacts.

*‘Telework’ is working from home using technology.

Partial and full closures

But at the moment across Australia we only have partial school closures in state schools, even though many private schools fully transitioned their teaching to online weeks ago. In NSW, for example, the Premier has asked parents to keep children at home if they could but baulked at closing schools down. At the moment NSW state school parents are choosing whether to send their children to school or not.

So, at a national level what is happening in Australia amounts to a partial school closure for our nation, which according to UNESCO makes Australia one of just 12 countries with such an approach (including the USA). However, there are now 140 countries with full national school closures, impacting over 80% of world’s student population.

These countries have taken the option to close all their schools in order to contain the pandemic, even countries that currently observe very few confirmed cases of COVID19 (like our neighbour Timor which has only 2 as I write this).

Given that some 140 countries have already tackled the logistical difficulties with national closures, the question remains: Why is Australia not embracing the medical benefits of school closures?

It could be too late for gradual and reactive closures

The immediate problem In Australia is that it may already be too late for reactive and gradual school closures.

This is because widespread proactive closures are now probably needed. As social scientist and physician at Yale University, Nicholas Christakis, tells us – community spread cases in schools “are the canary in the coalmine…when you detect one case there are probably dozens or hundreds of others.” We already have some of these in our schools, but our governments have not heard the canary.

Experts, including thousands of Australian doctors, recommend that community spread cases in schools mean that regional or national proactive school closures are needed. Given the unprecedented threat posed by COVID19, the current voluntary approach, where parents are encouraged but not required to keep their children at home, is a risk of enormous magnitude.

Proactive district, state and national closures, as Christakis tells us, have been shown:

“ …to be one of the most powerful nonpharmaceutical interventions that we can deploy. Proactive school closures work like reactive school closures not just because they get the children, the little vectors, removed from circulation. It’s not just about keeping the kids safe. It’s keeping the whole community safe.”

The example of the Spanish Flu in 1918

Previous school closures have been associated with a two-thirds reduction in death toll.

Research from the worlds’ last great pandemic, the Spanish flu in 1918, examined proactive versus reactive school closures and the timeliness of school closures relative to the growth of the epidemic. They found proactive school closing saved many lives. St. Louis closed the schools about a day in advance of the epidemic spiking, for 143 days. Pittsburgh closed 7 days after the peak and only for 53 days. And the death rate for the epidemic in St. Louis was roughly one-third as high as in Pittsburgh.

We must close all schools in Australia before the spike in the epidemic. Whistle-blowing doctors argue this is a critically important part of using ““every mechanism to ‘flatten the curve’ “ and will buy them time to equip and cope with the rise in cases.

Rachel Wilson is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney. Rachel is currently the program director for the Master in Education – Management & Leadership program. She has particular expertise in educational assessment, research methods and program evaluation. As such she has broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system level reform and innovation and has been involved in many university and education sector wide reforms.