Two million Australian children could be risking their education by having to learn at home during the coronavirus crisis.
Research papers commissioned by the federal government back its push to return children to schools as soon as possible.
The five papers agree children who are already disadvantaged are the most likely to fall further behind because of this disruption to their schooling.
The loss of social connections and the surveillance system schools provide to pick up on issues will exacerbate their risk of dropping out.
In addition, teachers have never had to do online education on this scale and many lack the necessary skills.
Natalie Brown and her colleagues from the University of Tasmania say it is clear children are already experiencing “learning loss”.
“As soon as health restrictions permit, there is an urgent need to reconnect these students to the physical context of school-based learning to support their learning and wellbeing outcomes,” they write.
They recommend all children from preschool to year two return to classrooms as a priority.
They estimate that being at home risks the educational outcomes, nutrition, physical movement, and social and emotional wellbeing of nearly half of all students – two million out of 4.3 million children.
A separate paper from Victoria University’s Stephen Lamb estimates that if online education proceeds for the whole of term two, disadvantaged students in year 5 will lose 1.5 weeks’ worth of reading education and nearly three weeks of numeracy.
Year 9 students would lose 2.3 weeks of reading and 3.3 weeks of numeracy – a third of a term.
“For children, virtual learning is less effective than face-to-face learning in school,” Professor Lamb says.
A 10-week gap in classroom education will lead to more students becoming vulnerable, University of Melbourne’s Janet Clinton says.
But there probably will not be a significant drop in the overall national achievement over the next few years.
“For most children, particularly those not already in a risk group, the effects on their achievement may not be significant enough to warrant special programs, longer school year, or new programs,” she says.
Professor Lamb points out the gap between the richest and poorest means there are big differences in learning opportunities.
“Most schools across Australia were completely unprepared for the coronavirus and for moving to virtual learning,” he says.
“Unequal internet access is just the tip of the iceberg of the challenges some students face in doing their schooling online.”
Geoff Masters, from the Australian Council for Educational Research, says the current school closures highlight long-standing issues of equity and access to resources and interruptions are not unusual.
He offers some immediate solutions, including providing books to support learning at home and trusting existing teaching resources over technological solutions.
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