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COVID-19 and education: how Australian schools are responding and what happens next

COVID-19 and education: how Australian schools are responding and what happens next

by David Sacks, Kieran Bayles, Annabelle Taggart and Sue Noble

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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted almost every element of our lives, and the education of our children has been no exception.


According to UNESCO, by the end of March 2020 over 1.5 billion pupils or 87 per cent of the world’s student population across 165 countries had been affected by school closures caused by COVID-19.1 In Australia, K-12 schools have experienced interruptions in every state and territory, although the extent and period of closures have varied significantly across jurisdictions. In early May, only 3 percent of children in Victorian government schools were in attendance, whereas the Northern Territory had returned to normal levels of 79 per cent.

The difference reflects government advice in those states at the time, which in turn reflects a difference in infection rates. In addition, the most populous states of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland have had the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases, and authorities there have proceeded with a cautious, staggered reopening of schools.  Further closures will likely continue as new cases arise in schools.  

It will be some time before we know the full impact of the disruption on learning outcomes, but early indications from global studies suggest that it will be students from disadvantaged backgrounds who suffer disproportionately. While Australia appears to have avoided some of the more severe impacts of the epidemic in comparison with many other nations, the steady decline in education outcomes over the last two decades when measured against our international peers2 makes Australia particularly vulnerable to further pressures on our education system.

Did we leave the classroom or did the classroom evolve?

COVID-19 has required many teachers, parents and students to rapidly adjust to new modes of learning. In a matter of weeks, schools have had to find and implement viable alternatives to the traditional model of teaching in a physical classroom. The degree to which these have been successful differs substantially and depends on numerous factors, but the fact that they have even been possible is a considerable achievement in itself.

Broadly, there are four main modes of K–12 education: conventional classroom-based teaching and learning, state remote learning services (i.e. ‘school of the air’ and online equivalents), independent homeschooling  – a mode that has significantly increased as a response to COVID-19 – and school-led remote learning.

School-led remote learning is not a new concept. After all, the homework that students regularly complete outside normal school hours is an example. However, COVID-19 has resulted in a very different form of school-led remote learning that comes with considerable challenges, including:

  • reduced one-to-one engagement with teachers
  • difficulty in ascertaining engagement levels of students
  • restricted ability to monitor individual student progress
  • increased level of oversight required from parents and carers (particularly for younger children)
  • increased social isolation and reduced ability to support student wellbeing
  • interruption to learning support for those children with additional needs
  • differential levels of access to technology, including internet and devices, to support learning.

Difficulty with implementing school-led remote learning across the country is further complicated by differences across state and territory jurisdictions, across school sectors (e.g. government and non-government) and across individual schools.

Different term dates across states and territories, along with variation in COVID-19 cases within each jurisdiction, also influenced the responses from education departments. The school holidays were effectively brought forward by a number of days at the end of term one in South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria to give principals and teachers additional time to prepare for remote learning in term two. But while South Australian public school students returned to school on the first day of term two, Victorian pupils were still learning from home six weeks later.

COVID education father and son

A term two like no other…

Australia’s federated model of government has provided flexibility for each state and territory to implement an approach that best suits their circumstances. The national cabinet, convened in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has allowed issues to be raised and ideas discussed at a national level while still allowing states and territories to exercise discretion over decisions that fall with their jurisdiction, including those relating to primary and secondary school education.

While the matter of when students return to more ‘normal’ classroom learning has resulted in friction at times, the model has allowed each state and territory to adopt an approach that is based largely on their progress in controlling the spread of the disease and the advice of their own health officials.

As it became apparent that many schools would need to provide an alternative to classroom-based learning in term two, school principals and teachers went into overdrive to prepare for the transition to a different learning model. This involved collating several weeks of learning materials, making hard copies available online, and increasing adoption of online systems to store content and manage interactions with children and parents. In addition, the preparations involved a logistical exercise for principals managing a workforce that would be split between the classroom and home, and to avoid teachers being expected to teach in ‘dual modes’ (i.e. both remote and face-to-face).

At the departmental level, government education bodies around the country launched a range of initiatives to support public schools. This led to the compilation and publication of best-practice content suitable for all phases of schooling and most learning areas and subjects and ensuring it could be easily accessed by the teaching community. While the bulk of the content was intended for online/digital delivery of the curriculum, it included standalone print-ready resources and individual work packages for students who may not be able to access digitised content, and also content suitable for students with special educational needs.

Similar efforts around the country were heavily reliant on the profession coming together to help, with better prepared schools and teachers sharing their time and resources to help those less ready.


Coming out the other side - an opportunity rich environment

One thing we do know for certain is that the COVID-19 pandemic will have lasting effects on our schools and students. Australia’s health system and economy – as with the rest of the world – will endure long-term impacts from COVID-19. It will not be possible to simply return to how things were prior to the outbreak.

A recent survey of teachers and school leaders in Australia and New Zealand conducted by Pivot and Education Perfect found that 80 per cent believed students would need extra instructional support when they go back to school, but the top three concerns were of social isolation, a decrease in student wellbeing and learning loss.3

The rapid onset of the pandemic, the devolved federal nature of our education system, and differential access to technology across school communities mean that experiences of school-led remote learning have varied significantly. Schools have scrambled to prepare materials that can be accessed from outside the classroom while also providing educators the means to connect with students using various videoconferencing and online collaboration tools. But this also requires students to have access to the devices and bandwidth necessary to participate. For some students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds or in at-risk situations, this simply has not been possible.

However, lessons can be learned from these challenging times and positives can be found. There have been anecdotal reports of an increase in positive parental perception of schools and educators due to increased parental engagement with their children’s education. Many teachers have quickly upskilled and adjusted to increased use of technology. Interestingly, one education Minister called for permanent changes to the school system after some students performed better during remote learning, including those students who had been previously disengaged or distracted in classrooms, and high-ability students who have had the freedom to learn at their own pace.4

Internationally, events that have significantly affected traditional face-to-face education and forced a transition to remote teaching and learning, such as the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, have resulted in a positive trend in education outcomes. A New Zealand qualifications authority noted that high school student performance improved in the final exams after the earthquakes, observing that the difference was that teachers could focus on ‘what had to be learned’ in a more streamlined curriculum.5


Continuing the conversation

The pace of change in the months since the pandemic began has far exceeded that in the years preceding it. Accordingly, COVID-19 has raised a number of questions about how education might look in the future. The experience has not only opened our eyes to the challenges of remote learning, but also to a number of exciting possibilities; including how teaching and learning away from the classroom might play a bigger role in the education of our students. However, there are a number of important questions we must consider before we move ahead, including: 

  • how is the interruption to education that COVID-19 has presented going to alter the learning trajectories of Australia’s children? How can we prevent those that were disadvantaged from being left behind?
  • what role should technology play in the delivery of K-12 education and how will the technology landscape evolve to meet this role? What should systems, schools and teachers do to keep pace?
  • how can student support, wellbeing and engagement be improved and social isolation be avoided if modes other than those in the classroom are increasingly used?
  • does COVID-19 present the juncture for a step change in how education is to be delivered? What does that mean for educators? How do we ensure the teacher workforce is empowered and supported to leverage presented opportunities? 
  • can Australia capitalise on opportunities and address the challenges presented by COVID-19 in a way that will reverse its steady decline against international peers?

Over the next six months, PwC will explore these questions and possibilities in further detail.

If you would like to contribute your views, please get in touch with your local PwC contact – we would love to hear from you.


References

UNESCO, UNESCO rallies international organizations, civil society and private sector partners in a broad Coalition to ensure #LearningNeverStops [press release]. 26 March 2020. Available from https://en.unesco.org/news/unesco-rallies-international-organizations-civil-society-and-private-sector-partners-broad

2 OECD, Country Note - OECD: Results from PISA 2018 - Australia. Available from https://www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/PISA2018_CN_AUS.pdf

3 Pivot. Educator perspectives on the impact of COVID-19 on teaching and learning in Australia and New Zealand [Internet]. April 2020. Available from https://www.pivotpl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Pivot_StateofEducation_2020_White-Paper.pdf

4 Merlino J. First wave of students back in the classroom [media release]. 26 May 2020. Available from https://www.jamesmerlino.com.au/media-releases/first-wave-of-students-back-in-the-classroom/

5 Sundstrom S, Blackmore R. Does missing a term due to COVID-19 really matter? What happened to student results after the Christchurch quake. ABC News [Internet]. 17 April 2020. Available from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-17/will-missing-school-due-to-covid-19-matter-for-school-students/12154266

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