Schools are adapting, but the best learning is done face to face

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As locked-down Year 12 students turn their attention to the General Achievement Test (GAT) rescheduled for September 9 – there appears a growing prospect that Victorian schools may not return to in-person learning until the start of term one in 2022. Planning for this possibility is underway.

So significant has the impact of the shutdowns been on young people, that getting back to conventional face-to-face learning will be just part of a major period of re-adjustment involving every aspect of their lives. The process is likely to take years.

Returning to classroom learning will take some adjustment.Credit:Shutterstock

On the upside, school principals in the state, Catholic and the independent school sectors confirm that far from treading water, many schools have been adapting, innovating and improvising in ways that could not have been imagined just 18 months ago.

Principals, teachers, support staff, students and their parents, have in the main, risen to the challenge to ensure that learning continues and that lockdown should not be a barrier to progressing the curriculum, irrespective of the year group. Is it tough? Yes. Is it working for everybody? No. Is it pushing school resources to the limit? Absolutely.

Much of the innovation is predicated on the use of advanced online technology which – although not always reliable or even available in many rural and regional centres, or in disadvantaged families – has proven its efficacy for the majority of students and teachers.

Most students and teachers have been able to make good use of online learning.Credit:Getty

The majority of Victorian secondary schools have switched to online grading and planning to have the vital end of year assessments online are well advanced. Teachers and moderators (often parents) of live, on-camera sessions report being utterly exhausted at the end of day. The same goes for students.

At one of Victoria’s largest state schools, McKinnon Secondary College, there have been online sessions for parent-teacher discussions, exercise classes for the entire school community, singing sessions with performers (each on dedicated screens separate from one another) and online sessions dedicated to topical subjects available to all members of the school community. This is community building at its best.

That young people, at both primary and secondary levels, have borne a disproportionately large share of the lockdown burden is not disputed. Adding to their anxiety now is the knowledge of their susceptibility to the Delta variant, and lack of access to vaccinations.

The Principal of Melbourne Grammar School, Philip Grutzner says compared with previous lockdowns, there are higher levels of fatigue, frustration and anger among his students, staff and parents.

Online schooling is clearly a compromised version of classroom learning and for the relationship between students and teachers to work optimally, on-campus learning is essential, particularly when it comes to sport, music, drama, debating and the social interactivity of every school-based program.

But, like other schools, Grutzner says there has been a concerted effort to provide the best teaching and support possible in the circumstances.

Final VCE exams are set to commence across Victoria in October with some oral exams to start earlier. Consideration of educational disadvantage has been offered again for all students by relevant authorities. Schools will be required to indicate the impact that remote learning has had for each individual student and some consideration will be applied to their end of year results.

The lack of fully trained psychologists and councillors has been described by many educators as frightening. It’s been reported that there is a delay for access to Headspace, and other psychological services, of at least six months. Everyone knows the public hospital system for young people needing urgent support is overwhelmed thus placing additional pressures on teachers, parents and carers. It ought not be overlooked that many teachers are also reporting stress related conditions.

Given the immense difficulties of the times we’re in, it’s not just schools that are needing to demonstrate their resourcefulness. The entire community is going to need to actively assist young people in the recovery effort and admit that “business as usual” is almost certainly a mirage.

John Simpson is a member of the Monash University council and a former member of the Scotch College council.

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