As the nation’s students head back to the classroom in 2021 there are lingering feelings of stress and anxiety related to COVID-19, education experts warn.
“We are living with that undertone of ‘if lockdown occurs again’,” says remote and online education specialist Tania Leach.
“Be mindful it’s not business as usual.”
The University of Southern Queensland lecturer says online learning during lockdown caused stress and anxiety, especially for vulnerable students and staff – and those feelings are likely to be lingering at the start of the new school year.
Ms Leach knows some teachers left the profession in 2020 after months of uncertainty and needing to adapt quickly to change.
“We underestimate how the COVID situation impacted people,” she says.
“For some it was a trigger that led to high levels of stress and anxiety. Some just felt the need to put themselves and their family first.”
The pandemic also took an emotional toll on children and young people.
Child behaviour problems were up 23 per cent and emotional distress up 70 per cent last year compared to the pre-COVID-19 period, says Triple P parenting program director Carol Markie-Dadds.
She urges parents whose children are experiencing challenges to “seek help rather than going it alone”.
“Whether you have a child starting school, going off to high school, or anywhere in between, helping children manage their emotions and build resilience will set them up for a successful school year,” Ms Markie-Dadds said.
If schools face lockdowns in 2021 many would find it easier to revert to the virtual classroom because processes and resources are still in place.
But education experts say the online learning experiences during lockdown in 2020 should also be a catalyst for change, providing opportunities for schools, governments and parents.
People in the education field are talking about how much learning needs to be face-to-face and what flexibility is possible, especially for senior students, according to Ms Leach.
“It’s going to be interesting to see within schools how their pedagogy changes,” she said.
There could be opportunities for schools to integrate more technology into classrooms.
During lockdowns remote learning became more accessible and less extraordinary, says University of South Australia Associate Professor Elspeth McInnes.
“Let’s keep it in the repertoire of things we have available to all learners,” she suggests.
As people working from home instead of an office became normalised, so educators experienced other ways children could learn and still have good outcomes.
But experts are concerned about students without access to technology and those from low-socioeconomic status households who struggled when having to learn at home.
Early childhood expert Michele Wright says the federal government previously funded a high school laptop program, but that’s been stopped, and now children in even earlier years also need devices.
Schools also prioritise technology differently, with some choosing to invest elsewhere, but we need to start “moving forward faster”.
Ms Wright likens it to some people valuing a horse-and-cart when the car has been invented.
“COVID has shown us when you change the landscape you’ve got to actually say ‘I need the car’.”
She recognises teachers and parents did their very best in 2020, but says the experience provides learning opportunities for the future.
“When we see what’s happening around the world we need to think about whether our schools and parents could sustain some of the methods we used here for a longer period of time,” she said.
Back to school dates for term one in 2021 across Australia
* ACT: Monday, February 1 (new students) and Tuesday, February 2 (continuing students)
* NSW: Wednesday, January 27 (eastern division) and Wednesday, February 3 (western division)
* Northern Territory: Monday, February 1, except remote schools which start on Tuesday, February 2
* Queensland: Wednesday, January 27
* South Australia: Wednesday, January 27
* Tasmania: Wednesday, February 3
* Victoria: Thursday, January 28
* Western Australia: Monday, February 1