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Ongoing lockdowns in Australian schools highlight the widening gap between haves and have-nots

·5 min read

It was 11.30am on a school day, and I was still in my pyjamas. I’d had enough and was feeling overwhelmed and deflated. I walked away from my kids and the dining table littered with scraps of paper and pencil sharpenings. I curled up in a ball in front of the heater. My six-year-old stood up from her chair and yelled that I was the “worst teacher ever”. She probably wasn’t wrong.

I didn’t move for the next three hours.

This wasn’t my finest parenting moment. It was an even worse educator moment. It was the culmination of pandemic fatigue, trying to homeschool my children full-time while also doing my job. And before teachers angrily message me that I’m diminishing their profession by not referring to my makeshift educator role as “remote learning,” please let me explain.

Related: Students in NSW stressed as Covid lockdowns disrupt school and year 12 trial exams

The latest iteration of school lockdown has highlighted the widening haves and have nots in the education system. It’s also shown a lack of leadership and uniformity at school, state and federal levels.

Some schools have virtual classes all day, where a teacher interacts with students. These students are fortunate enough to partake of live lessons where involvement and accountability are part of the process. Heck, some of the most privileged private school students got access to the Pfizer vaccine apparently by “error” despite millions of adults like me who are still not eligible to receive it. And let’s not forget that while I’m forced to watch my daughter colour in and label a giraffe and missing work deadlines, some private school students are granted exemptions to go on excursions to the bush and snow.

Other schools email many links to YouTube and endless worksheets, and parents are expected to teach, supervise, and keep their multiple children engaged. They’re also lucky to receive one quick phone call a week from the school.

For some students, their remote learning experiences sits somewhere in between. Perhaps they get an optional 15-minute “check-in” over Zoom each day, and teachers may give some feedback on individual progress over email.

My youngest daughter requires constant supervision and help. And while her teacher is lovely and holds a 20-minute daily Zoom session for morale, it’s not nearly enough to teach my daughter foundational literacy and numeracy skills.

It’s broadly understood and accepted that remote learning can’t match the richness and quality of face-to-face learning and peer interaction. This is not my gripe.

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I am frustrated because more than 18 months into the pandemic, many schools continue to take the light-touch approach to remote learning and refuse to acknowledge how this negatively impacts both children and their parents.

Last year, research from the Grattan Institute showed the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students widens at triple the rate in remote schooling compared to regular classes. An estimated one in four students will need help to catch up on their learning.

“This includes students from low socio-economic families, Indigenous backgrounds and remote communities, as well as students experiencing poor mental health,” the authors warned.

Despite these findings, many schools are still actively “encouraging” (read: pressuring) parents to keep their kids with disabilities at home. Others check in from time to time and offer to take kids if parents are really struggling to meet their children’s additional needs. I also know of single parents who have used all of their annual leave to homeschool their children.

For months now, education experts have been urging state governments to provide more direction to schools when it comes to remote learning. They’re concerned that inconsistent teaching methods and vastly differing expectations put scores of students at a disadvantage.

Last years parents were told – and we reminded one another – to “not stress too much” that “kids are resilient”, “just do what you can at home” and that in the end, they’ll all “just catch up”. I was willing to accept those vague consolations and assurances because everyone was navigating uncharted waters. There was little time for planning and standardising remote learning, and parents were glad to be accommodating.

Related: Learning in lockdown: 'The largest social experiment we've ever done'

Since the pandemic, Victorian students have missed out on up to a whopping 126 days of in-class learning. This hasn’t been some fleeting moment that we need to accept and will pass.

There is no excuse for state education departments, the Catholic dioceses and Independent school leaders to pretend to be shocked by the volatility of the virus. Why aren’t they working together to establish consistent online modules and virtual teacher credentialing standards? What about mandating that schools offer devices and internet connections to students who don’t have access to them? Surely there should also be a process for schools to identify students who are struggling, and tutors made available.

With no end in sight to the lockdown – especially for New South Wales – year 12 students who are about to sit their final exams shouldn’t have to accept that there is no consistent plan for their most significant schooling year other than the expectation they’ll stare at Zoom all day.

But if schools aren’t doing it themselves, what about the respective education ministers and premiers? There’s a national cabinet meeting at the end of this week. I’d like to put this on their homework list.

• Antoinette Lattouf is a multi-award winning Network 10 journalist, an author and a mother of two. Twitter: @antoinette_news

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