Term 3 is shaping up to be a difficult time for schools in South Australia with families, children and school communities all under significant and ongoing pressure. We are hearing predictions that further teacher shortages due to new waves of active COVID-19 cases are to be expected. This coupled with pressures on families because of significant increases in the cost of living, housing stress, and rolling isolation for some children and young people, is really taking a toll.
In recognition of the positive impact school has on children’s mental health and overall safety, a key feature of our COVID-19 response has been keeping children and young people in school wherever possible and ensuring there is a place-based option for the most vulnerable children and young people across our communities. This has meant that children and young people in South Australia have been able to attend school throughout the pandemic.
That is not to say that COVID-19 hasn’t had an enormous impact on their school experience over the last two years. In fact, in commentary received via my annual Student Voice Postcard initiative, where I ask children from primary schools across South Australia to share what matters most to them, one of the things they want most is for adults to know what happens to them at school and how the pandemic is impacting their lives.
For our primary school aged children, having relief teachers who don’t know their name, their interests, or their individual challenges is difficult.
“Children said it means they miss out on the extra help they would ordinarily receive from regular teachers who ‘get’ them. Young people in high school have told me that prolonged absences due to lock down, illness, and enforced close contacts isolation, mean they are feeling overwhelmed, are falling behind in every subject and can’t see how they will ever catch up.”
The impact this has on their mental health is real, with many talking about a fear of “dropping out” altogether if things get worse.
Service providers and specialist programs have also been impacted, unable to deliver their usual support services to schools. This means leadership, sports, and resilience programs have also been missing from student routines. Often these are the programs that have the most positive impact on nurturing young people’s sense of belonging, engagement, and wellbeing. It keeps them connected and communicating what’s going in their lives with both peers and supportive adults.
It should not be surprising to any of us, therefore, that some children and young people have fallen through the school safety net, or that others are feeling their school is not meeting their needs or expectations. Hearing about children who haven’t been to school or received any home schooling for months or have disengaged from school altogether, are becoming more common. The pathway back to school for these students is unclear, but what is clear is that the longer they remain disconnected from school the harder this will be.
In these tough times, when schools and families are under such pressure, how do we support our education system to address the additional pressures being felt by schools, families, and communities? Whilst calls for more support are common, the reality is that systems under stress, like people under stress, are generally less tolerant, less open-minded, and less accommodating. A build-up of stress and pressure and raised levels of discomfort coupled with feelings of frustration can be shown through challenging behaviours.
“It’s at these times that we need calm heads, measured responses, and kindness, inclusion, and forgiveness to be the response from adults and systems. Instead of scolding and controlling, it is reassurance, comfort and support that needs to be the order of the day. “
Our actions and words should say to every child that they matter — and their education matters too.
Term 3 mustn’t be the term in which we see less children and young people at school because they’re being sent home, suspended, excluded, or “home schooled” for challenging behaviours. This is the term in which we as a community must do all we can to ensure the legacy of the pandemic isn’t thousands of children and young people who have become disconnected from their education because the system couldn’t cope.
Our ambition must be to do all we can to find ways to ensure all children and young people are kept connected to their learning — not most children or easy to teach children, or children without challenges — but all children. The time is now to see what the community outside of schools can do to support those within the school gates as they continue to do their utmost to keep children engaged and connected to their learning and schooling for the range of benefits it will deliver over the long term.