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Education: what’s the plan for our children under Covid-19

Ben Smith is the Opposition Senate Leader and the Shadow Minister of Education

The year 2020 and the start of 2021 will mark a dramatically different school experience that all of our children will remember for the rest of their lives. Our teachers have had to be creative, adapting to conditions and circumstances that they were unprepared for.

Sadly, the impact of the pandemic has been more severe for disadvantaged children and their families, causing, among other things, interrupted learning, compromised nutrition for those who enjoyed the benefit of feeding programmes at their schools, childcare problems and significant economic cost to families where caregivers cannot work. All of the interruptions and loss of normal school environment have the very real potential of having a huge negative impact on their skills and economic prospects for the rest of their lives.

The pandemic’s disruption to our education system is affecting education in unprecedented ways, and the impact on this present generation of learners will be long-lasting. As in other areas, inequality in education looms high. Children who come from well-to-do families are having a different educational experience than those who do not have the same level of household income. Online and remote learning have put a heavy burden on parents and caregivers who are unable to support their children because of a variety of reasons. Many parents are neither prepared nor equipped to handle being the first responders for their children’s learning experience. Many of our children do not have access to online learning because they have limited or no access to reliable internet, electricity, computers, tablets, and other devices.

Covid-19 will be responsible for many of our students not achieving their full education, which inevitably results in a loss of their earnings potential. This is not acceptable. Accordingly, urgent and effective action is required to address these differential learning losses, which is critical to moving forward so that these gaps don’t widen. Of particular concern are our younger learners, who, without in-person learning, are at a higher risk of suffering from long-term academic consequences and developmental deficits.

Therefore, we must lay the groundwork for the future now. We cannot continue to allow these learning losses to continue. As a country, we must figure out flexible schemes in which schools either open partially or close according to the Covid conditions. It is a complex balance of managing the very real health risks against the huge learning losses, particularly among the disadvantaged.

As a start, we must provide a plan in the event in-school learning is interrupted:

• Make sure that all children who are being taught by remote access have the conditions and support for learning

• Ensure that our teachers are equipped to support each and every student at the level that they need

• Develop well-managed education systems to ensure continuity in the learning process between our schools, homes and the community

• Support at-home learning by distributing books, providing digital devices where possible and resource packs for remote learning to children and parents

• Provide extra learning opportunities for students that are struggling with remote learning

Students will still be required to sit international exams such as General Certificate of Secondary Education, International General Certificate of Secondary Education and International Baccalaureate regardless of in-school learning or remote learning.

As remote learning is the preferred option at present, there needs to be a plan for returning safely to schools:

• To minimise the spread of the virus, we must continue to promote preventive measures in relation to the pandemic, such as physical distancing, hand washing and mask wearing

• Regular testing is also one of many critical strategies for controlling the spread of Covid-19. Frequent testing is used as a screening tool. Therefore, we should offer regular testing to teachers. Since we are fairly certain that the incubation period for the virus is 14 days, this will allow school staff to be tested regularly enough to detect most asymptomatic cases. When positive cases are detected, they can be isolated and close contacts can be identified and quarantined, limiting additional potential for spread. Any teacher that feels ill between regular in-school testing opportunities can seek testing at another location immediately

• Saliva testing that has been promoted for sport could be implemented for school students. This would give a comfort level that the spread is contained while allowing students to return to learning. This increased level of student testing could allow for the return of many extracurricular activities, which would bring some normality to the lives of our youth

We must explore all of our options and develop real-time strategies to ensure that we are creating the best educational support for our children for now and beyond.

Ben Smith is the Opposition Senate Leader and the Shadow Minister of Education

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Published April 05, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated April 05, 2021 at 8:49 am)

Education: what’s the plan for our children under Covid-19

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