Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Five Reports on the Impact of Remote Learning on Vulnerable Children

The Australian Government commissioned five reports on the  impact of remote learning on vulnerable children during the  COVID-19 emergency. These were done very quickly, but are by Australian researchers who have extensive knowledge and experience.

Brown, Te Riele, Shelley, and Woodroffe found that nearly half students are at risk of significantly compromised learning, and this is not confined to low socio-economic status families. They call for a social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists, and school nurses to be on site when students return to school. This seems to me to be unrealistic, and it is likely help will be by professionals who now provide online support.

Drane, Vernon and O’Shea  estimated 20% of students would face "long-term educational disengagement, digital exclusion, poor technology management and increased psychosocial challenges". They cite UNESCO's "COVID-19 : 10 Recommendations to plan distance learning solutions" (2020).

Masters pointed out that younger children need more scaffolding and support, particularly those who are vulnerable. This is supported by Lamb, who also points out the challenges for indigenous students, who had less less experience with ICT before COVID-19.

Clinton recommends increased digital inclusion. I suggest that while the focus should be on teaching return to the classroom quickly, the potential benefits for all students from online learning to supplement classroom education should not be neglected.

While the government has relied on these reports to justify the reopening of schools, the reports themselves were made difficult to find on the Department of Education's website, so here they are:
  1. Brown, N., Te Riele, K., Shelley, B. & Woodroffe, J. (2020). Learning at home during COVID-19: Effects on vulnerable young Australians. Independent Rapid Response Report. Hobart: University of Tasmania, Peter Underwood Centre for Educational Attainment. URL https://www.dese.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/learning_at_home_during_covid_-_utas_natalie_brown.pdf
  2. Masters. G. (2020). Ministerial Briefing Paper on Evidence of the Likely Impact on Educational Outcomes ofVulnerable Children Learning at Home during COVID-19, Australian Council for Educational Research. URL https://www.dese.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/ministerial_briefing_paper_covid19_and_vulnerable_children_acer_22april2020.pdf
  3. Clinton, J. (2020). Supporting Vulnerable Children in the Face of a Pandemic: A paper prepared for theAustralian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment. Centre for Program Evaluation, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne. URL https://www.dese.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/clinton_-_supporting_vulnerable_children_.pdf
  4. Lamb, S. (2020). Impact of learning from home on educational outcomes for disadvantaged children: Brief assessment. Centre for International Research on Education Systems, Victoria University. URL https://www.dese.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/lamb_-_impact_of_learning_from_home.pdf
  5. Drane, C., Vernon, L., & O’Shea, S. (2020). The impact of ‘learning at home’ on the educational outcomes of vulnerable children in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Literature Review prepared by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University, Australia. URL https://www.dese.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/literature_review-learning_at_home_-_covid19_0.pdf
While online learning is now taking place on a scale not seen before, it is worth keeping in mind it is not new. The impact of distance education is a well researched field. There thousands of studies over decades, most involving just a few dozen, or a few hundred students, but some with thousands, or tens of thousands. I had to sift through a lot of this stuff as a graduate student of education. I have attended education conferences with, and talks by, many of the people who wrote these reports, and it is not like they just started think about the implications of e-learning in the last few weeks.

This is not an entirely new, or unanticipated situation. After SARS, educational institutions in the region planned how they would switch to e-learning if students where quarantined at home.

The level of preparation by Australian education departments and institutions, might be a useful area for any Royal Commission into the pandemic to explore. This would be along with an investigation of the general preparedness by Australian governments, and if Ministers exercised their duty of care by initiating, and participating in, pandemic preparedness exercises.

Some excerpts from the reports:

Brown, N., Te Riele, K., Shelley, B. & Woodroffe, J. (2020). Learning at home during COVID-19:Effects on vulnerable young Australians. Independent Rapid Response Report. Hobart: University of Tasmania, Peter Underwood Centre for Educational Attainment.

Executive summary


Nearly half the national school student population are at risk of having their learning and wellbeing significantly compromised by not being at school because they are either an early years’ student or are in a vulnerable group. As soon as health restrictions permit there is an urgent need to reconnect these students to the physical context of school-based learning to support their learning and
wellbeing outcomes. Concurrently there is a need to invest rapidly in developing significant capability in schools to deliver education both online and on-site. ...


Nearly half (46%) of Australian children and young people are at risk adverse effects on their educational outcomes, nutrition, physical movement, social, and emotional wellbeing by being physically disconnected from school.

It is already clear that nationally, children and young people are experiencing learning losses. This means that there will not be the expected cognitive gains for these students over the period of learning at home. These losses will cause a delay in cognitive gain and achievement in some students and result in others being lost to the education system. ...

The reason for these losses is that many families lack the physical spaces, technology and other resources to support learning at home. Additionally, many parents and caregivers lack the time needed to support their children’s learning. This is occurring irrespective of socio-economic status, with full-time waged and sole parent-waged families reporting difficulties. ...


There is a need for a coherent cross-jurisdictional communications strategy and implementation plan to incentivise and support vulnerable students to physically attend school. The strategy should:

• Ensure schools have the safety protocols in place for physical reconnection of a significant number of students including ensuring that allied professional staff (social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists, and school nurses) are able to provide services on site where possible.

• Where full time reconnection of significant number is not going to be possible for safety or logistical reasons plan for a blend of on-line and physical presence through a week.

• Encourage universal full-time on-site attendance for pre-school to year 2 nationally

• Utilise direct and personalised invitations to specific vulnerable school students and their families/carers to see those students attend school and complement this group with invitations to a balanced cohort of students to reduce stigmatisation of specific groups and ‘normalise’ attendance.

• Enable universal on-site attendance at dedicated Flexible Learning Options, Schools for Special Purposes and Re-Engagement Programs nationally.

• Invest in targeted and personalised learner engagement for students who are not physically attending and who cannot access online learning, are not engaging in learning, or are at risk of disengaging over the short and long term

• Invest in, and support, teachers:

- to manage the increased workload of teaching both offline and online by providing additional staffing on a short-term basis: teachers, teacher assistants, and social/youth workers; and
- with professional learning for skills and expertise in the creation of non-school based learning strategies, such as high-quality online content, lower technology radio, as well as television content; and
- for re-engagement and trauma-informed approaches for the most vulnerable students.

Recognising the necessary input from parents to support learning at home goes beyond physical provision of resources. Many families require additional support beyond the current web-based material (eg. utilisation of television and radio, as well as outreach through community networks, and support in the moment).

Most of the cost will likely be related to additional resourcing at the commencement of the strategy and short to medium terms, as well as for teams with ongoing responsibility for implementation and oversight of operations, and reporting. Immediate investment can achieve social impact through maximising the value created by Commonwealth Government and State and Territory Government spending on education.

The financial costs may include:

• provision for teachers to have time to enhance skills in, and implement, online pedagogy;
• additional resources for allied professionals within schools;
• co-construction and implementation of an Indigenous strategy;
• attendance incentivisation strategies;
• resources to facilitate learning in the home (eg. a national hotline for parents supporting their children’s learning; TV and radio content; enabling part-time employment for a period with Commonwealth support to sustain full-time equivalent superannuation entitlements); and
• provision to effectively resource and implement Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) safety regimes.
There could be a consideration of regulatory changes to enable final year pre-service teachers to work on Limited Authority to Teach or as Teacher Assistants; and counting those hours worked towards practicum. This group may provide a valuable additional resource for schools.


There are risks and sensitivities in targeting specific groups to attend school as it can be stigmatising and counterproductive. The risk of stigmatisation does not only include students who may be classified as ‘at risk’ or vulnerable, but also children of essential workers, who may be perceived by other parents/children to be carrying the virus.

• States and Territories may resist elements of a national approach. Integrating the communications plan with known positions can mitigate this risk.
• Negotiating a consistent cross-sectoral approach (public, Catholic and independent schools) will alleviate parent and care-giver confusion.
• There is a risk that employers are unable to effectively meet workplace health and safety and other industrial relations obligations on school sites.
• There is a risk of industrial disputes if changed practices are not effectively negotiated and lawfully implemented. ..."
Masters. G. (2020). Ministerial Briefing Paper on Evidence of the Likely Impact on Educational Outcomes of
Vulnerable Children Learning at Home during COVID-19, Australian Council for Educational Research. URL https://www.dese.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/ministerial_briefing_paper_covid19_and_vulnerable_children_acer_22april2020.pdf
"Summary points

● Vulnerability in this paper is considered from two interrelated perspectives: social and educational.
● Socially vulnerable children are over-represented among the group of students who are educationally vulnerable.
● The negative impact of educational vulnerability on students’ capacity to learn across all areas of the curriculum is exacerbated by their reduced access to resources at home (e.g., adequate food and shelter, ICT, a quiet place to work, books, learning support from parents), and is associated with social vulnerability. This is, in effect, a continuous cycle of disadvantage.
● While parents play a crucial role in remediating educational disadvantage, the level of education, socioeconomic status, and consequent capacity to provide home learning support and resources for students is lower among parents of educationally disadvantaged students than in the broader community.
● The likelihood of any positive impact of educational programs on vulnerable students will be greatly increased if support is also provided to deal with their basic needs.
● The basic profile of educationally vulnerable children appears to be consistent across students, regardless of their age.
● While this paper focuses on vulnerable students, it is important to note that high proportions of primary-school children are not able to work independently when using technology, and need scaffolding and support. The level of support needed is higher for younger students and those who are vulnerable.
● Schools and teachers play a vital role in supporting vulnerable children. However, most schools do not have the requisite infrastructure to support remote learning, and many teachers do not currently have the confidence or skills to manage remote learning and require support.
● While access to digital technologies and the internet is high in Australia, there is still evidence of a digital divide, with poorer Australians and those in remote locations being relatively disadvantaged.
● Many remote-learning programs exist and may be leveraged to help support the learning of vulnerable students at home. However:
○ the basic human needs of students must first be met in order for education programs to be able to succeed;
○ there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can work; and
○ programs should be tailored to meet the specific needs of vulnerable students."

Clinton, J. (2020). Supporting Vulnerable Children in the Face of a Pandemic: A paper prepared for theAustralian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

 "Executive summary

This paper particularly focuses on factors that will impede access to quality education, of the effects on the more vulnerable groups, and it outlines models of support and recovery that evidence suggests are useful. This brief synthesis draws parallels from literature on natural disasters and school interruptions such as school holidays, teacher strikes, economic downturn, and natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes.

According to the Productivity Commission, disadvantage in Australia needs to be assessed against three metrics: relative income poverty, material deprivation (inability to afford life’s essentials), and social exclusion. Children experiencing these metrics can include those living very low SES contexts, jobless households, children with special needs either physical or psychological, children with language other than English backgrounds and refugee populations, rural and remote contexts, and Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait islanders. Recently, low digital inclusion has been considered an additional category particularly when this interacts with the other categories.

It is useful to consider the impact of the current pandemic from a Population Life Course perspective which illustrates the determinants of Education and its efforts in in reducing vulnerability. The figure below illustrates the trajectory for those in the existing vulnerable, the potential vulnerable and the protected categories within the population along with those determinants of education that drive the curve up or down.

Australian children living in poverty will experience exacerbated risk as a consequence of the COVID-19 school interruption. For children at risk of missing approximately 10 weeks of in school education, (with the possibility of further disruption over a longer period), given the context in that they live; it’s probable that there will be a significant interruption of learning, access to support for health and well-being, a decrease in the development of individual protective factors, and a lack of surveillance systems to identify issues that school provides.
Subsequently, the equity gap will increase and for many, the chance of recovery from the impact of living in these vulnerable contexts will be diminished. Essentially, there is the probability that across this education life course, the size of the vulnerable group will increase. Those on the cusp of vulnerability will have the greatest movement.

Currently we can define our major disadvantaged groups, and it is expected that students with the following characteristics (Table 1) are most likely to be affected by the current suspension of normal schooling. We expect that these students will experience an interactive effect of CoVID19 and any prior disadvantage. Specifically, as a consequence of the pandemic, students are likely to experience:
1. Increased stress, social and emotional concerns with possible behavioural issues arising.

2. Struggle with low self-regulation to maintain learning progression, that has been highly dependent on the teacher
3. No access to quality learning strategies and guidance necessary to promote development
4. Less educational resources and activities relative to peers in particular in relation to limited digital engagement
5. Continued and reaffirming experience of past lack of progress in school
6. Will have little concept of themselves as a learner at school, and likely the same at home. Hence impacting on future engagement in schooling such as absenteeism and dropouts
7. Lack of facility in critical reading and numeracy skills to move to the next level, and more likely to become part of the ‘low Matthew effect’
8. Living in homes which are not safe havens (for many of these students, school is the safe haven), there will be an exacerbation of physical and emotional health issues
9. Parents who have low capacity or desire to engage them in the schoolwork at home and who ignore or permit no engagement with schoolwork.

10. Upper high school preparing for high stakes exams will lose the opportunity to engage
The Table below attempts to summarise the depth of ‘risk exacerbation’ as a consequence of the pandemic by indicating with Green for a minimum effect, Orange for a medium effect, and Red, for the greatest level of exacerbation. The figure demonstrates the relationship between exiting risk categories and like area of impact.

Many of these students are likely to be already ‘at risk.’ The absence from regular class, and support suggests that the level of risk and the number of comorbidities is likely to be exacerbated. Hence the recovery will be much more difficult.

It must also be acknowledged that within these categories there are subsets of students who are successful despite the categorisation of some level risk and in fact some will do better as a consequence of the current crisis.

Recovery and Support: what does the evidence suggest? The are many ideas and much rhetoric about recovery, however there is little consolidated evidence on the support needs for vulnerable children and families in times of crisis. The following present a brief over of a number recommendation gleaned from multiple sources.

Recovery takes time There are many national and international frameworks that provide a foundation for recovery after a disaster. The UN Disaster Risk Reduction model (UN, 2015) for example, conceptualises disaster risk relief as a “Build Back Better” system.

This model argues that resilience emerges from a continual, interplaying dynamic cycle between response (immediate) recovery (short-term) and preparedness (medium-term). The domains of action include teaching & learning; capacity and capability; engagement, coordination, and communications; infrastructure; assessment, policy, and planning.

Recovery measures must redress damage & develop resilience-building measures (Shah, 2015).

Disaster response and management has several phases and it is worth drawing on these phases to consider educations response to the current COVID-19 crisis and beyond. In many recovery programs, the government-assisted stage can be separated into distinct but overlapping phases that delineate an early recovery phase. This is important as it stresses the transition from the immediate response to recovery efforts over time, as in the figure below (The Community Recovery Handbook, 2018, p. 32).While the framework below, is based on a community response model it provides a valuable template for the school sectors phased response to the current crisis and particularly for vulnerable students.

Invest in Support community & cultural engagement Evidence based multisectoral approaches Students stay home with contact options and suggestion of activity digital or otherwise.


Understand the context: Successful recovery is based on an understanding of the community context.

1. Recognise complexity: Successful recovery is responsive to the complex and dynamic nature of both emergencies and communities.

2. Use community-led approaches: Successful recovery is community-centred, responsive and flexible, engaging with communities and supporting them to move forward.

3. Excellent diagnosis of every student comparing their expected growth prior to COVID-19, to detect where extra attention and programs is needed.

4. Coordinate all activities: Successful recovery requires a planned, coordinated and adaptive approach based on continuing assessment of impacts and needs.

5. Communicate effectively: Successful recovery is built on effective communication between the affected community and other partners.

6. Recognise and build capacity: Successful recovery recognises, supports and builds on individual and community strengths.

Ultimately, it is important that education recovery operations must draw attention to incorporating “children’s unique mental health, physical health, educational, childcare, and juvenile justice needs into all phases of the disaster life cycle”.


1. Recovery needs a collective response that builds long term relationships
2. Success is dependent on teachers and schools
3. Shift the focus and build adaptive resilience through the provision of services to support socially and emotionally
4. Ensure ongoing communication with vulnerable children and families
5. Support and professional learning for teachers is essential
6. Provision of targeted content
7. Consider the investment in multiple forms and mode of resources for all.
8. Increase digital inclusion
9. Building an evidence basis: Evaluation assessments, monitoring data linking "

Lamb, S. (2020). Impact of learning from home on educational outcomes for disadvantaged children: Brief assessment.

"The situation for indigenous Australians also presents challenges. ICT inclusion of indigenous Australians remains lower than the national average and while it has risen in the past year, the rate of this rise is slower than the national average (Thomas et al., 2019). Indigenous students tend to have less experience with ICT, with only 37 per cent of indigenous students reporting more than seven years of computer experience, compared with 51 per cent of non- Indigenous students (Fraillon et al., 2013). Fewer indigenous students report using computers at least weekly at school compared with non-indigenous students (ACER, 2013)"
Drane, C., Vernon, L., & O’Shea, S. (2020). The impact of ‘learning at home’ on the educational outcomes of vulnerable children in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"... Globally, while some countries have opted for a mass school shut-down, many schools remain open for more vulnerable students (UNESCO, 2020a). This "partial closure" is not only to enable learning in smaller targeted groups but also to offer a "safe" sanctuary for those who desperately need a regulated and secure environment including the provision of "free" hot food and also, company.

In summary, currently within Australia if there were mass school closures there is potential for around four million students to be affected: 
  • In 2019, there were 3,948,811 students enrolled in 9,503 schools, with 2,263,207 primary students and 1,680,504 secondary students.
  • If 20 per cent of these young people are living in financially disadvantaged or low socioeconomic status (SES) communities and are required to study off campus then around 800,000 will be subjected to a range of barriers and/or risks including:
    • long-term educational disengagement
    • digital exclusion
    • poor technology management
    • increased psychosocial challenges.

UNESCO (2020b) have developed 10 key recommendations to ensure that learning remains uninterrupted during the COVID-19 crisis (see Appendix One). There is global evidence of countries adopting, to some degree, at least seven of these recommendations during mass closures, which include:
• examining the readiness of the school for closure (including the technology available)
• ensuring distance learning programs aim for inclusivity
• prioritising solutions to address psychosocial challenges before teaching
• providing support to teachers and parents on the use of digital tools
• blending appropriate approaches and limiting the number of applications and platforms used
• developing distance learning rules and actively monitoring students’ learning process
• creating communities that enhance connection."

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