Two million Australian children are at risk of falling behind in their education amid the national shift to remote learning, according to research commissioned by the federal Education Department.
The research shows the effects of the coronavirus school shutdowns are already being felt by the most vulnerable.
Education Minister Dan Tehan used the research to reiterate the federal government’s view that states and territories should to push to have students back in classrooms by the end of May.
“There is the potential impact on over two million students in this nation if we can’t get students back connected with the classroom,” he told ABC Radio on Tuesday.
Conducted by five universities and educational institutions, the reports aimed to measure the potential ramifications for vulnerable students – but one report found the impact might well extend beyond this.
Professor Natalie Brown, director of the Peter Underwood Centre at the University of Tasmania, was the lead author on the paper that found nearly half of all children might suffer.
She said that while the initial research focused on traditionally vulnerable students, it was expanded because of rapid job losses and limited home internet access – circumstances exacerbated by the rush to remote learning.
“[It includes] all of the complexities of being at home – so some people not having a home, some people in economic disadvantage at home, others trying to balance work, multiple children,” Professor Brown said.
The report found “nearly half [46 per cent] of Australian children and young people are at risk [of] adverse effects on their educational outcomes, nutrition, physical movement and emotional wellbeing by being physically disconnected from school”.
As coronavirus infections reached their peak and schools closed, the extent of support and help required of teachers became apparent.
“When you start to think about that, I guess it’s not at all surprising that so many families are really finding this a challenge,” Professor Brown said.
The report’s authors recommended all children from preschool to year two return to classrooms as a priority.
But the push to get children back to class has fallen flat, with at least two states remaining committed to remote learning for the second term.
Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein delivered an unequivocal message to the federal government:
“We run the schools in Tasmania and I’ll make decisions that are in the best interests of our teachers, our parents and our students,” he said.
Schools across Tasmania opened for term two on Tuesday, with parents urged to keep kids home for online learning. In addition, public schools in the state’s north-west will remain shut until Monday to try to contain a regional COVID-19 outbreak.
“We believe that the settings we have in place at the moment are the right ones for Tasmania,” Mr Gutwein said.
“We will keep them under review but how we operate in Tasmania is a matter for us.”
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews also rejected the idea that remote learning would hurt vulnerable children.
“We’re working very, very hard to make sure that every young person, every child, every student, gets every chance, and is looked after and cared for,” he said on Tuesday.
“We know there is a big job to do to support the most vulnerable in our community … I’m confident we can continue to do that.”
Mr Andrews said seven of Victoria’s coronavirus cases had been traced back to schools, and the science on whether or not to keep children away from classrooms to tackle COVID-19 was “not settled”.
“We can guess, or we can have an abundance of caution and I’m happy to be criticised for being cautious in this. I know what’s at stake,” he said.
Asked about Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s comments that children should return to schools, Mr Andrews said:
“He doesn’t run the schools, so some people can provide commentary – others need to get on and make decisions.”
“I think you need to be guided by the Prime Minister’s own words and he said if you want to know what is going on in Victoria then speak to the Victorian government.”
State Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien has pushed for more face-to-face learning immediately, saying the federal government-commissioned research on the issue underlined his campaign.
Other states were also taking steps to get students back into classrooms, he said.
“Let’s make our schools safer and let’s get our children back in the classroom safely as soon as possible,” he said.
NSW will have a staggered start for term two, with students returning to classes a day a week from May 11. Western Australia has also reopened its schools, as have the Northern Territory and South Australia.
Queensland will maintain remote learning for some weeks yet.
Victoria’s restrictions will not be reviewed or amended until May 11, when its state of emergency comes to an end.