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SA's shifting schools advice has baffled parents - but we can learn from it

Opinion

Shifting messages have confused parents about whether to send their children to school in South Australia, but the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to improve education in the long run, writes educational researcher Amy Graham.

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Schools in South Australia return on Monday. No-one has really had a holiday, given the barrage of advice surrounding COVID-19 and what this means for how school will be delivered this term.

Every parent wants the best for their child. It is also true that in every decision, by every authority, the value placed on education and student learning has been utmost.

But currently, parents are confused about what is best, as they try to follow the rapidly evolving advice on the term 2 plans for return to school. Here, I will discuss the facts and what has contributed to this confusion and my opinion on what opportunities we have to learn from this crisis response in education.

Confusing shifts in messages

Let’s start by mapping the moving feast that has confounded parents since last term.

In the last weeks of term 1, we saw attendance at South Australian schools drop dramatically. Some classes had 80 per cent of students missing.

Parents voted with their feet, genuinely concerned about the health risk of COVID-19 and its potential for transmission in schools. In response, schools reminded parents of their statutory obligation to have their children physically attend school, or provide a valid reason for an exemption.

There was little support, then, for parental choice if they wanted to exercise their right to continue their child’s education at home.

Teachers, too, were concerned. Some took leave without pay over concerns for their own health, or to help them prepare for the changes ahead.

Only days later, the school holidays in South Australia were brought forward, and teachers were provided additional pupil-free days to prepare for online learning for the foreseeable future.

To understand what they were preparing for, parents at government schools were sent a survey asking them to nominate their preference for home or online schooling in term 2. Schools used these days to plan the modifications they needed to deliver learning differently.

The capacity of schools to adapt readily to a blended learning model varies widely. As a result, many schools have been working the entire holidays to develop a program and suite of new resources to meet the needs of their local school community.

Until this week, the message from the Education Minister  was that it was preferable for parents to keep their children home if they were able in term 2, leaving school available for those children who could genuinely not be catered for at home.

Some parents took leave from their employment to accommodate their child’s education to allow them to continue at home in term 2, while others invested in expensive equipment and resources to ensure they were equipped with what they needed to access the syllabus.

Change is fine – but advice needs to be clear

As the illness rate has dropped, the rhetoric has changed. In and of itself, this is no problem if the advice is uniform and easy for parents to follow. But what we now have is a baffling debate, and compromised student learning and parent and teacher wellbeing, days away from the start of term.

In one corner, we have the health perspective. On Wednesday, SA’s chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier wrote to SA parents and encouraged students to return to school. In this letter, Professor Spurrier controversially reassured parents that is “safe” to do so.

This term has unsettled parents, with many questioning the incongruence of this message with other social distancing measures that remain in place throughout the community.

One parent said: “How can schools be deemed a safe place, while I can’t have a birthday party for my son and he hasn’t been able to play with his friends all holidays?”

While it is reassuring to have a message of support from health professionals, it has come all too late and adds fuel to the growing fire.

In the other corner, we have the views of the Australian Education Union. They express frustration at the inconsistency of advice, and the misused time spent at the end of term 1 preparing a blended learning program that is likely to be redundant.

Teachers are exhausted from the additional work they have done to plan for the alternate delivery model, and school leaders now have no idea how many students will be attending on Monday morning.

Furthermore, while schools might be considered safe for students, this is not the case for teachers who may be vulnerable in these environments. Where does this leave them? If we look at what has happened in other states, it is safe to say that for the first week at least, schools are likely to resemble circuses.

The national picture adds to confusion

All of this contradictory advice at a local level is compounded by the different policies being enacted in jurisdictions around Australia.

The Australian Government has also been reticent to weigh in with a clear position on what should happen in schools, apart from sharing the health advice that the risk to children remains low. Beyond that, it is a decision for states and territories to make the decisions for their own schools.

With the media widely reporting the controversial plan announced by New South Wales this week to stagger the return to schools at one-day-a-week from week 3, it is easy to see why parents are puzzled at the unclear messaging.

As a parent myself, I too am grappling with the decision I need to make. I am genuinely confused about what is best for my children their teachers and school leaders, and which government advice is most accurate to follow.

I am fortunate to have employment that is congruent with working from home, and I am fortunate to be in a position to have financial and parenting resources that allow me to support my children’s learning from home if need be. So many do not.

Now, I acknowledge that this is a dynamic, fast-moving crisis and all responses and decisions have had to be made rapidly. The cogs within the government have never had to turn so fast, but it is inexcusable to have parents cobbling together pieces of the debate daily for a clear position.

Parents rely on expert advice to help their decision-making, having to weigh up their assessment of health risks, the importance of attending school physically for continuity of learning, access to resources and social connections for their child, paid work demands, needs of other children and other complexities. When this advice is conflicting, parents lose confidence in the experts.

We can learn from this

Once the dust settles and schools return, I do think there are real opportunities for learning, and even benefits, as we move forward out of this crisis.

The first lesson is in boosting the consistency of inter-governmental messages to ensure a more uniform approach to communication. This is especially important in crisis situations. Parents should not hear contrary advice from different departments within the same government.

Secondly, what this pandemic response has magnified is the lack of parent agency, or a voice at the decision-making table about their child. Parents have not been consulted on their views and instead are passive recipients in the process.

There needs to be stronger parent and school partnerships, so parents can feel confident in their role supporting their child’s learning. For those parents who do choose to keep their children home and test out the remote learning resources, they will get a first-hand look at their children’s school day. I urge them to remember these lessons.

Finally, there is an opportunity to put to use the hard work that schools and the Department have done to prepare an alternate model of educational delivery. Potentially, it is now exposed that the traditional face-to-face learning model can be improved to improve equity for all students.

Moving to a permanent model of blended learning would have benefits for many including rural and remote learners, students with disabilities or chronic health conditions who cannot attend face-to-face learning for extended periods, and students who may be struggling with engagement in traditional ways.

It is my hope that the government uses this crisis response as an opportunity to see where the gaps in knowledge are, and work towards upskilling staff, students and parents in blended learning.

Dr Amy Graham is a Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales’ Gonski Institute for Education. She lives in South Australia.

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