The closure of schools in the way that is being mooted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented and is sailing the Australian education sector into unchartered waters. We have seen that a number of schools have already been closed for several days. It is expected that over the course of the next few months we will see many schools forced to close either for a couple of days or weeks due to a community member having tested positive for COVID-19 or for weeks and possibly months if this is mandated by the Government. This shift has already happened extensively at the tertiary level.
There are many challenges that schools will have to manage as a result of short or medium term temporary closures.
Online Student Learning
The Western Australian School Education Act 1999, states:
“(1) A student must, for every year of the student’s compulsory education period, on the days on which the school is open for instruction —
(a) either —
(i) attend the school at which the student is enrolled; or
(ii) otherwise participate in an educational programme of the school whether at the school or elsewhere,
as required by the principal”.
The second sub-clause allows for students to participate in school sanctioned excursions, camps, structured work-place learning and study in hospital along with a variety of other legitimate reasons for being unable to attend their school’s campus.
This statement, and there are similar statements in other education acts or regulations across Australia, allows for schools to offer online learning, subject to registration criteria, to students of groups of students who are unable to attend face to face learning.
At present, the desire to slow down the transmission of COVID-19 has focused attention on the need for schools to prepare, and in some cases they have already started, to deliver learning by alternative means to students who cannot attend classes on campus or in effect who are unable to do so through self-isolation by choice or by directive from the Health Dept.
It is perhaps worth reflecting on the way in which COVID-19 would have impacted schools and students and disrupted student learning if this pandemic had occurred in the early 1990s where the use of technology in schools was very limited or non-existent.
It is only in the last two decades that technology use in schools has reached a stage where online learning systems enable students to login and receive instructions in some form or another. In 2020, technology has moved ahead exponentially ,and the way we communicate over the internet is such that there are many platforms and ‘apps’ that provide a means of students connecting with teachers and each other in real time. The ‘only’ requirement for this is a reliable internet connection.
Year 12 Students
The shift to online learning will have its challenges for all year levels but it is no doubt particularly daunting for education authorities and schools when considering Year 12 students and for those students themselves and their families.
The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) recently published some advice schools in relation to how to deal with affected students who are studying in Years 11 and 12. The advice included that:
- schools need to provide students with the opportunity to engage with schoolwork and meet course requirements, including sending work to affected students. It also acknowledged that this may not always be possible and will vary depending on the particular subject.
- Schools should allow submission of assessment tasks electronically, including adjustment and modifying tasks, setting alternative tasks and providing extensions.
- students impacted by travel bans or school closures may meet the criteria for claiming illness or misadventure.
The underlying tone of the NESA advice is that schools will need to continue as normally as possible but modify the way they undertake their educational programs and that most of the modifications that will be necessary will probably fit within current regulatory guidelines.
It is expected that every state and territory education regulator will provide (or has already provided) similar advice to schools and to individual students affected by COVID-19.
It has yet to be outlined how Year 12 students studying more ‘practical’ subjects (such as hospitality) or that contain a ‘practical’ component (such as a music or drama performance either solo or in a group) will be able to be properly and fairly assessed on those practical components if school closures are in force at the relevant assessment time.
Most education regulatory bodies have specific requirements in place for those schools that provide distance education to students (e.g. Section 3.3.3 of the March 2020 Registered and Accredited Individual Non-government Schools (NSW) Manual and Standard 14 of the January 2020 Guide to the Registration Standards and Other Requirements for Non-Government Schools (WA)) by online means.
It is also to be expected that any specific requirements in relation to attendance, delivery of courses online or by distance education or even delivery by third party education providers will be subject to a degree of flexibility or the use of Ministerial discretion where by moving their teaching and learning online, schools may fail to meet all of the regulatory requirements for, say, distance education. These are extraordinary times and, for example, the tone of the NESA advice is reflective of this.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) provides a valuable resource for schools, ‘How to plan distance learning solutions during temporary schools closures’. Of course, it is expected that each state or territory regulatory authority and perhaps other organisations such as the Independent Schools Associations will provide advice or direction for schools.
For many students and for many schools 2020 will most likely be a disrupted year of operations and of their studies. The focus for all schools and for school regulators will be to minimise the impact of the disruption on their students’ education and their educational progress.
There are many questions to be answered regarding duty of care for the students if they are required to study from home, optional activities to replace practical course components, supervision for tests or examinations and so forth. No doubt NESA, the VRQA and similar bodies in all states and territories are developing plans for schools in response to these and many other queries.
However, the Federal Government, with the backing of all state and territory government leaders, is advising that schools are to remain open as per usual for the time being. This gives schools a little more time to plan for possible closures a little further down the track and to prepare their teachers and students for a very different style of education.