Nearly 10 million children, including Australians, will never go back to school after the coronavirus pandemic.
A report, released on Monday by aid agency Save the Children, is predicting big budget cuts to education and rising global poverty caused by COVID-19 could force at least 9.7 million children out of school forever by the end of this year.
The risk of not returning to school was highest for children in 12 countries, mainly in West and Central Africa, as well as Yemen and Afghanistan, the report shows.
Girls were more likely than boys to drop out of school as a result of gender discrimination and societal expectations.
But it’s not only children in disadvantaged countries who are expected to take a serious hit to their education.
An investigation by the ABC revealed during the height of the coronavirus lockdowns, some Victorian schools were turning away students whose parents had histories of neglecting them or abusing drugs when they should have been letting them come to school.
Some children with disabilities and Indigenous children at risk of disengaging from school were also turned away, the report said.
Matt Gardiner, Save the Children’s Australian Services executive director, said for many young Australians who were already at risk of dropping out of school, “COVID-19 could be what pushes them over the edge”.
“When schooling is interrupted or moved to remote learning, a strong sense of belonging and connection is more important than ever,” he said.
“For those children already on a knife’s edge about continuing their schooling, COVID-19 and the lockdown could provide the reason to stop going altogether.”
The findings come as more than 700,000 Victorian students prepare to return to online learning in locked-down parts of the state.
Students in metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire just north of the city will learn from home from July 20 until at least August 19 to limit the spread of coronavirus outbreaks in those areas.
On Sunday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Education Minister James Merlino said they’ve learned “lessons” from the previous lockdown arrangements related to schooling.
This time, on-site learning will be available for students whose parents cannot work from home no matter what industry they are in – not just for children whose parents are essential workers.
They can attend school all week, or just occasionally for “respite”.
On-site learning will also be available for students with special needs who attend mainstream schools.
Resilience in rural areas
Usually when a major national crisis hits like bushfires or drought, it’s rural Australians who are hit the hardest.
But with COVID-19, it has been a different story.
Dr Maryann Brown, CEO of rural education support service Youthrive Victoria, said she believed rural children would be more likely to return to school than those in cities after the pandemic.
“This is largely because rural communities have been less impacted by COVID-19,” Dr Brown told The New Daily.
“There’s also a natural resilience in country kids. They’re used to life not being predictable – the weather isn’t predictable, the markets aren’t predictable. There is a strength in them.”
Dr Brown conceded unreliable internet connection had been an issue for some students, but added many schools worked out ways around it by arranging hard-copy assignments or even asking the postie to drop off USBs to students on their delivery route.
“Even when they were doing online learning, I don’t think they were deeply disadvantaged,” Dr Brown said.
“Some kids live in isolation a lot anyway and have to travel far to see their mates, so the social part of it wasn’t such a big deal.”