Lara White checks her uniform ahead of returning to school. Photo Credit: Wolter Peeters
Like hundreds of thousands of year 2 to 11 students across Sydney, Lara White is looking forward to returning to her school, Penola Catholic College in Emu Plains.
Even though she only had six months to adjust to high school, she misses her teachers and friends and is ready for the classroom again.
Her mother Nicole is not worried whether remote learning has affected the year 7 student’s academic progress. “[Remote learning] was very structured,” she says. “They had a full class load, they progressed and they did assessments. I don’t think she’s fallen behind; I think she’s doing quite well with her studies and on the right track.”
While many parents worried about learning loss when schools shut for more than 12 weeks in Sydney during the Delta outbreak, a research report from the Centre for Independent Studies has found the average student has not fallen behind pre-pandemic achievement levels.
Research author Glenn Fahey said he drew on a wide range of data, including the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children and NAPLAN results, to make the cautiously optimistic finding. “The picture is better than we initially feared,” Mr Fahey said. “It’s a situation where we can be alert but not alarmed.”
The report estimates that if Australian students had progressed as slowly as their peers in other countries such as France and Italy, then the average Australian student would be the equivalent of 6.6 weeks behind in reading and numeracy — and as much as 19.4 weeks behind in Victoria.
Mr Fahey says Australia’s relative success can be attributed to students being responsive and tech-savvy, solid teaching practices and schools and government bodies ensuring children had access to technology.
While assessments held in NSW schools when students returned to class after last year’s lockdown showed some had fallen two to three months behind in maths and literacy, NAPLAN results from May this year showed Australian students’ literacy and numeracy skills held steady.
Mr Fahey said initial worries that disadvantaged students and those already behind would suffer more adverse effects also were not borne out by his research. “That has to be credited to policy-makers and educators; some schools went out of their way to provide extra support to students who might need it,” he said.
The research findings could help schools and policy-makers make decisions and allocate resources during pandemic recovery and to focus on re-establishing students’ social skills, he said. “We don’t need to singly focus on the back-to-basics (literacy and numeracy) skillset as much because the evidence suggests those things are probably in check,” he said.
NSW public schools will hold check-in assessments for students from years 3 to 9 upon their return to school, to see how they have fared in their learning and assess what extra help they may need. The tests are mapped to the literacy and numeracy syllabuses.
The assessments consist of between 40 and 50 multiple choice questions, and schools receive the results within 48 hours, which “means they can immediately respond to the learning needs of each of their students”, a NSW Department of Education spokeswoman said.
“The check-in platform includes links to teaching strategies supporting teachers in addressing those learning needs.”
The assessments are for teachers; parents do not get a formal report of students’ results, unlike NAPLAN.
Sydney schools will run the assessments in term four, but teachers can decide when. “We are strongly encouraging schools to complete them as soon as is practicable once students have settled back into school routines,” the spokeswoman said.
“We understand schools will need to focus on student wellbeing when students first return.”
UNICEF Australia and the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth are calling for the establishment of a national children’s plan to help young people address their mental health concerns and other challenges that have arisen out of the latest COVID wave and lockdown.
National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds said: “I am very concerned that the unique needs of children have not been a priority during the past 10 months with COVID policy focused primarily on adults. As we climb out of COVID lockdowns, we need to listen to children and act to support their safety, development and wellbeing.”
If attendance for kindergarten and year 1 last week was any guide, about 91 per cent of students will go back to campus despite parents’ concerns about COVID-19.
From November 8, all adults working on school sites will need to be fully vaccinated. Until then, schools must find a way to manage while those who have not had two shots work remotely. By last Friday morning, nearly 110,000 of the department’s 130,000-odd staff had provided their vaccination status, with more than 95 per cent fully vaccinated.