The Australian education sector has proven, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, that it is flexible, adaptive and above all responsive to the ongoing needs of students and staff.
Much time and effort has been devoted to the delivery of online learning and its challenges – and previous School Governance articles have explored issues such as:
- preparing for and delivering online learning
- duty of care in the online environment
- child protection and safety concerns in the online environment.
The capacity to deliver online learning in a safe and appropriate way is a necessary foundation for schools for the coming months. Students, teachers and parents will have a myriad of concerns and questions on the practical implications of our radically changed way of operating. School leaders at all levels of our education system - from state regulatory authorities through to individual schools- must now face the challenge of adapting all processes and practices to the reality of a world dominated by online learning, social distancing and severe restrictions in the provision of many services that we have previously taken for granted.
In New South Wales, for example, NESA (the New South Wales Education Authority) has been most impressive in quickly and effectively addressing a multitude of concerns of teachers, students and parents, including providing advice on the Higher School Certificate in relation to assessment, practical and performance concerns, teacher accreditation matters, home schooling, Working with Children Check clearances and HSC disability provisions.
School leaders continue to be challenged by a myriad of concerns that extend beyond provision of online learning.
Concerns for Students
Schools have generally been outstanding in supporting students’ wellbeing. Particularly over recent decades, formal and informal processes have ensured that students have a variety of ways of establishing effective interpersonal relationships with staff and peers.
While some of these may be replicated in an online environment, it is clear that the online environment will significantly alter the capacity for schools to deliver wellbeing support for students at a time when many of them will be facing additional stresses. Sadly, there is already evidence of increased domestic violence as the economic, social and health impacts of COVID-19 impacts families – some students are horrifyingly now essentially confined to an environment of abuse. All schools have students who struggle with mental health issues in ‘normal’ times. This period of considerable change, uncertainty and pressure has the potential to impact significantly on the mental health of many more students.
Considerations for Leaders
- What are the processes, in the online environment, for students accessing appropriate wellbeing support from teachers and professionals such as psychologists and school counsellors?
- What additional support and training needs to be provided for teachers in helping to identify, support and direct students for whom they may develop concerns?
- How might schools continue to foster effective peer relations in the online environment?
- What specific wellbeing activities can be organised by the school’s wellbeing team to support students to thrive in the online/at home environment?
Schools have been effective facilitators of leadership programs and initiatives for students and many students genuinely value the opportunities to serve and contribute to their school community. While some aspects of student leadership initiatives and responsibilities are redundant in the current circumstances, there may be additional opportunities that will be beneficial for the student leaders, other students and the school community.
Considerations for Leaders
- How could student leadership be fostered and strengthened when the school community is so dispersed?
- What role do your student leaders envision for themselves in supporting fellow students?
- How might school leaders foster and strengthen school culture in the online school environment?
Concerns for Teachers
Programming and Adjustments
Some subject areas are easier to transfer to an online environment than others – especially those that have significant and specialist practical components such as Industrial Arts and Visual Arts. For some subjects like Physics and Chemistry there may be online resources to cover some of these practical components. For other subjects this may be less possible. All subjects are, however, impacted by the online environment in how and what they now assess as part of the formal evaluation of student progress. In NSW, for example, NESA has given principals and system authorities the power to determine the number, type and weighting of tasks for HSC and Year 11 school-based assessment.
Adjustments to teaching and assessment programs are challenging and time consuming and are being undertaken in an environment of isolation and changed mode of delivery.
Considerations for Leaders
- What guidelines are schools providing to teachers regarding the adjustment to teaching and assessment programs to ensure appropriate duty of care considerations are being met in subjects that have practical components. What (if any) at-home practical activities are permissible?
- How are mandatory ‘pracs’ and field trips are being accommodated in revised programs and how are these communicated to students and parents?
- How are staff being supported in the (additional) time-consuming process of reprogramming to accommodate online learning and adjusted curriculum and assessment programs?
With significant changes in teaching programs and assessment schedules, it will become essential for schools to adjust their reporting regimes to reflect the reconfigured learning of students. Formal reporting mechanisms, such as term and semester reports, will carry the additional responsibility of reassuring parents and students that an appropriate and meaningful level of learning has been delivered and undertaken by students.
At a time when many parents will be experiencing increased financial pressures from the economic consequences of the pandemic on family finances, school reports will be a critical factor in parents’ confidence that their children continued to receive a high- quality education. A formal reporting regime that fails to reflect the changed learning parameters has the capacity to undermine parents’ confidence in an education process that continues to need to reflect value for money. Parent and student perceptions of value for money have the potential to significantly impact the financial viability of many schools.
Less formal reporting mechanisms such as parent/student/teacher interviews are typically highly valued by parents of students in independent schools. How schools and teachers navigate this aspect of the reporting regime will also be a significant aspect of engendering confidence in the quality and service of education being delivered.
Considerations for Leaders
- What adjustments to reports and reporting processes (content and timing) need to be made to reflect the changed scope of learning?
- Are there additional learning competencies which could be reported on to reflect a current learning environment?
- Are there additional ways in which the formal reporting process can be strengthened to reinforce the awareness that quality learning continues despite the changed learning environment?
- How might less formal reporting processes, such as parent /teacher/student interviews operate and be managed at this time given the restrictions required by social distancing?
Most schools have by now transitioned successfully to delivering learning online. Despite the entreaties of the Prime Minister for schools to remain open for the commencement of Term 2 and for teachers to continue to support students within the physical environment of the school, recent absentee rates suggest that many parents are likely to select the online option for their children especially in the short to medium term.
Continuing to support students and teachers in this challenging environment and engendering parental confidence in the efficacy of the education that their children are receiving will become an increasing challenge for all school leaders.