This month, parents across Victoria had to keep their kids at home for three days, as they had done for months on end last year.
Throughout this pandemic, governments have rightly made a virtue of following public health advice. So when it comes to school closures and remote learning, what does the very best evidence say?
Students at St Brendan’s Primary School in Flemington returning to school in October after the COVID-19 shutdown.Credit:Jason South
The World Health Organisation says: “Given the devastating consequences on children … the decision to close schools should be a last resort, temporary, and only at a local level in areas with intense transmission.”
UNESCO agrees, noting that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly hard-hit. The director of education and skills at the OECD says learning losses from school closures are “likely to remain permanent”.
And just last week, as reported by The Age, experts from Melbourne’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute said schools should be shut only as a last resort.
Let’s test this advice against the actions of the Victorian government.
In Victoria, schools have not been closed as a last resort. Our school closures in 2020 were certainly not “temporary”. Most Victorian kids were out of the classroom for about two terms.
Finally, our shutdowns have not been “only at a local level”. Last week, as was the case for many months last year, schools were closed Victoria-wide, regardless of local transmission rates. Regional Victoria is COVID-free, yet its schools were closed to all but vulnerable students.
Why doesn’t the government heed the best evidence?
It fails to fully understand the impact of remote learning on our students. While the experts say the move away from face-to-face learning has a “devastating” and “permanent” impact on children, the government says there are “positives and negatives”. But this isn’t true.
Let’s deal with academic learning. New research from Victoria University shows students learning remotely face a 25 per cent annual decline in maths learning and 10 per cent in English. The impact on learning for disadvantaged students is even more significant.
Victorian students are not coming from a strong base. The annual Report on Government Services, released this month by the Productivity Commission, shows Victorian students received their worst-ever results last year. Students can ill afford extra hits to their learning from school closures.
This new data, as usual, showed country students performed far worse than city kids. Therefore, Victoria’s decision to close regional and rural schools, in areas with no community transmission, was particularly odd.
School is also about social and emotional growth. Interaction with peers and the building of pro-social skills is vital. This simply can’t be done while staring at a computer screen, as ballooning rates of mental illness make plain.
During our periods of remote learning, Victorian teachers have done a great job. Parents have also tried their level best. Yet remote learning is no substitute for being at school, as all the experts acknowledge.
Meanwhile, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee has always said schools can be COVID-safe.
As we continue to live with this virus, let’s accept the public health advice, and only ever close schools as a very last resort.
Dr Matthew Bach MP is Victoria’s shadow assistant minister for education and a former teacher.
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