Schools are one of the most complex parts of the policy response to coronavirus. Policymakers seemingly have to navigate the tightrope between saving lives and harming children’s education.
Late last term the expert medical advice to the National Cabinet was that it was safe for schools to stay open, however the political response from state governments changed. Parents were told to keep their children at home unless they couldn’t look after them during school hours — leading to an absentee rate of about 90 per cent in NSW. Schools are reopening for term two, but with virtually no students except for children of emergency workers.
But school closures particularly hurt families from disadvantaged backgrounds.
There is a clear cosmopolitan bias in how the impact of closing schools is viewed. People who can easily work from home — such as academics, journalists, and office workers — are certainly facing challenges in supervising their children’s education at home.
But the challenges are workable compared to those faced by many other professions — such as tradies, cleaners, and hospitality staff — who cannot stay home without jeopardising their income. This harsh reality isn’t sufficiently acknowledged.
And obviously, students who have highly-educated parents and access to fast internet and sophisticated digital education platforms will learn much more than students who don’t — exacerbating existing inequities.
Moving millions of Australian children to digital learning may be temporarily necessary as an emergency measure, but it’s certainly not ideal; and there’s no clear evidence it’s a more effective way of learning compared to face-to-face.
If the best that can be said for online education is that it’s useful for a few months during an unpredicted once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, then there’s not much to be said for it usually.
On the positive side, it may get parents more involved in their children’s schooling — or at least, as much as practicable while also working from home.
We can argue about when it would be safe to completely re-open the schools and go back to normal. But it’s imperative we appreciate there is a real educational and human cost in the meantime.