If we don’t get back in class soon our kids will suffer
COVID-19 has highlighted a great divide in this country.
Since the nation entered lockdown, communities have felt the division between those who can afford to stockpile groceries and those who cannot; those who can afford to isolate early and those who cannot.
But the valley between the haves and have nots is felt most deeply by Australian children. They are the forgotten victims of this crisis, whose education and wellbeing are suffering because COVID has increased disadvantage and poverty where it already existed, and tipped families on the verge, right over the edge.
When we think of children in crisis, we often think of children beyond our shores, in conflict or famine, where children's agencies such as UNICEF are working with the most vulnerable. But the COVID-19 crisis is on our doorstep and children, especially those who are already vulnerable, are feeling it the most in their learning and lack of connection outside their home.
The crisis is being felt by children who don't have access to a laptop or tablet, by children who live in rural or remote areas with unreliable or no internet access, by one in six Australian children and young people who live in poverty, and thousands more whose parents simply cannot manage home schooling as well as their jobs.
For these young Australians, the adverse effect of interrupted education will be seen in the months and years to come, and the longer children are away from the school environment, the more likely it is to further entrench disadvantage and make it harder for some children to catch up.
Despite its limitations, online learning has had an important role in recent weeks. It delivered learning opportunities to thousands of children during a time of uncertainty. Teachers worked hard and fast to get their lessons online and connect with their classes in creative new ways. Australians are incredibly thankful for our teachers' commitment and professionalism throughout this pandemic. But now it is in the best interest of our children to move from chatrooms to classrooms.
Australia's health experts argue strongly that it is safe for children to return to classrooms. The message that it is safe for children to return to school is coming through loud and clear, and so we must make sure that the best interests of the child are prioritised.
Providing children with the best possible education is a critical priority for any country, especially for Australia, where our academic ranking and education equality is not our strong point.
The UNICEF Global Report Card 15 shows Australia is ranked 40 in education equality, against other high-income countries, placing us in the bottom third across preschool, primary and secondary education.
Australia's academic record has also been falling for the last 10 years, with the nation now ranked against other OECD countries as 11th in reading, 24th in maths, and 13th in science against other countries. That gap could increase with a prolonged lack of access to face-to-face learning in classrooms.
If the delayed return to school continues, it is estimated that some private school students may receive almost six weeks more learning days than their public-school friends.
Victoria University research indicates that our most vulnerable students, from low socio-economic groups, with complex learning needs would be most impacted by prolonged online schooling. It is estimated they could lose more than six weeks in numeracy and four weeks of literacy over two terms.
In addition, we know that tragically, rates of domestic violence impacting children typically increase by around 20 per cent during holiday periods when everyone is at home together. Just last week, the Government reported tens of thousands more calls than usual to national mental health, domestic violence and crisis helplines. Kids Helpline has reported a 40 per cent increase in calls since the onset of COVID-19 in Australia.
These problems cannot be ignored.
UNICEF has been advocating for the best interest of children for more than 70 years across 190 countries. We have seen first-hand the benefits of education for children under stress. In refugee camps, schools are open because they play a critical role in children's wellbeing. We cannot underestimate that importance.
In Australia, we are privileged to have a public education system available to all children. Children coming together in the classroom provides so much more than education. The benefits of the educational experience cannot be captured by a chat room. A computer does not equal a teacher, a video call does not equal a school community and a chat room does not equal a playground.
Australia has rightly been laser focused and successful in suppressing COVID-19 from our communities, but success must also include the educational and social wellbeing of our children. When health experts, parents and children tell us it is in their best interest to be back in the classroom we have to listen.
Otherwise, in the aftermath of this pandemic, we may be asking ourselves what else we could have done and whether our children were the hidden victims.
Tony Stuart is the CEO of UNICEF Australia.
Originally published as If we don't get back in classrooms soon our kids will suffer