Back to school (at home) in the ACT. But some reasons to approach Term 2 positively | HerCanberra

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Back to school (at home) in the ACT. But some reasons to approach Term 2 positively

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As the ACT’s families return to the frontline of schooling their kids off the dining room table from next week, there are a lot of reasons Canberra families should consider themselves lucky—even if, right now, the road seems long and uncertain, and NSW schools look set to return before we do.

Due to our small size, and unique college system, the ACT is particularly well-placed to support the online learning of students at all levels—particularly those students in Year 12, hoping for an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) at the end of the year.

And while it is a daunting task to oversee the process as a humble parent—particularly when you’re also trying to hold down a job—experts say to keep calm and carry on. This may just make us all more resilient.

Yesterday ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry confirmed the ACT would not immediately follow NSW’s lead when they begin a staggered return to school on May 11.

“We’re ready to deliver remotely for all of Term 2, however, will move to face-to-face delivery if the circumstances allow us to do that sensibly,” she said. Much to the frustration of parents who are genuinely struggling with the school/home/work juggle, it continues to be a watch-and-wait situation.

From next week, nine schools have been selected to be available as “safe and supervised sites for students and families who are unable to stay at home”.

They include: Caroline Chisholm School; Charles Weston School; Gordon Primary; Mawson Primary; Amaroo School; Majura Primary; Kingsford Smith;  Maribyrnong Primary and Red Hill Primary.

The ACT is expecting approximately 1,900 students each day to attend a school site across the Government system, with private and Catholic schools also providing supervision for small numbers of students. But all students will be doing remote learning tasks no matter where they are during the day.

The Minister told HerCanberra this week that the risk of going back too early outweighed the benefits of returning.

“If we continue with remote education we know we will be okay, but going back brings risk with it that we need to take into account. The last thing we want is to send kids back and then have to close schools down again.”

Even if the ACT Government does consider a staged return part-way through Term 2, it has to get the Australian Education Union to agree to sending government teachers back into the classroom.

ACT branch secretary Glenn Fowler said he understood the anxiety of parents, but the ACT’s public school teacher workforce should not be forced to bear the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“We will need a transition back to onsite learning, and any proposal from the Government needs to be negotiated with us. We should not rush this. If we go back too early we could see a kick-along of the virus,” said Glenn.

“I get that we all want to send our kids back, I have two of my own, so trust me I understand. But when it comes to maintaining the social distancing recommendations, they are just not deliverable in a normal school setting—particularly with the younger kids.”

He said one of the most positive aspects of the move to online learning was the quick IT upskilling of teachers that had taken place in recent weeks and that the ACT had a huge advantage over other jurisdictions in that children in Years 4-12 in government schools had access to Chromebooks.

Similarly, University of Canberra Executive Dean of the Faculty of Education Professor Barney Dalgarno said the ACT’s small size and IT provisions gave students a head start. More broadly, he said flexible and online delivery of education would be better embedded in schools in the wake of the global pandemic.

Barney, who is an expert in online learning and emerging technologies, acknowledged from the outset that the ACT’s quick pivot to home learning was challenging on many levels, but there were longer-term benefits which would play out—not least exposing children to self-directed learning.

“One would expect that children coming out of this context will, by necessity, develop better self-regulation skills and that will stand them in good stead for further education.”

“I definitely think that the ACT system has more agility built into it to be able to thrive in this kind of a context. And that goes to the pedagogical approaches in the earlier years as well as the college system, which is extremely well-placed to deliver academic rigour through continuous assessment.”

Indeed, stress levels for Australia’s Year 12 cohort—trying to navigate university entry—is understandably high.

Across the border in NSW where students in Year 12 are due to sit the Higher School Certificate (including students at Canberra Grammar, which is the only ACT school to administer the HSC), exams are scheduled to run from August through to November, and those exam results are heavily weighted to form each student’s ATAR. For these students, it is a mammoth disruption to their most crucial year of schooling.

Yet it’s a very different story in the ACT, where the college system faces only minimal disruption as it uses continual assessment over Years 11 and 12 to form an ATAR. For most students, it is business as usual—but at home.

The ACT Board of Senior Secondary Studies (BSSS), which oversees ACT college assessment, has moved in the last few weeks to provide colleges with additional flexibility to ensure student assessment can be maintained online.

The BSSS’s Executive Director Martin Watson said he had been impressed by the willingness of college principals and teachers to “realign their thinking and to move extremely quickly to deliver the curriculum in a flexible remote context.”

The Board, in turn, had moved to allow colleges to change their assessment requirements for some units—removing some and changing the weightings for others. But colleges had still been able to provide assessment data to the board in the three weeks before the Easter holidays which showed they had adapted well.

“Any great challenge like this inevitably means people look at practice and reflect on what is important… Students need predictability in the college years, and we don’t want to disrupt their momentum, while still being flexible and innovative in what we do. Given ACT colleges have such high levels of knowledge and ownership over curriculum and assessment, it means we can deliver on both of those things, and we can ensure that students need not be disadvantaged.”

While there had been no move yet to reschedule the ACT Scaling Test, which is used to moderate results over Years 11 and 12 to form each student’s ATAR and which is due to be administered in September, Martin said contingencies could include moving it until later in the year or using a condensed version to reduce pressure on students.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear how the HSC exams will be conducted.

NSW, along with every other state and territory, has assured students they will be able to attain a university entrance and universities themselves have started to signal more flexible entry arrangements for next year.

Meanwhile, University of Canberra Clinical Associate Professor in Education Kerrie Heath stressed the need for parents to be kind on themselves—and on their children—as they returned to Term 2 learning in the home.

For younger children, she said, now is not the time to worry about results.

Kerrie, who has been a teacher, school principal and school leader within the ACT Education Directorate, said she suspected things will be a little less stressful than the last few weeks of Term 1 “when a lot of things were still being bedded down and things were moving very quickly—at least we now know what to expect”.

She acknowledged some of the greatest anxiety came from not having an end in sight. “It is always challenging working with a level of uncertainty, and we simply don’t know how long this thing is going to play out for.”

While also working from home and supervising the online learning of her own 10-year-old, Kerrie urged parents to readjust their expectations that they could replicate within the home the educational experience that took place in schools.

“Parents aren’t teachers. Parents are parents and their most important task right now is to make sure our kids are feeling safe, and happy. Schools are not expecting parents to be teachers, and they recognise the limitations and challenges many face, particularly the parents who are also working from home.”

Both Kerrie and Barney pointed to overseas examples of natural disasters where education provision was severely disrupted and yet, student outcomes had not suffered as a result.

For instance, students who missed months of school following the Christchurch Earthquake in New Zealand in 2011 actually improved their results. This was also the case in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005—where 110 out of 126 public schools were completely destroyed and some children missed up to a year of formal schooling. Once schools were re-established, both results and attendance demonstrably improved over time.

“When you look at the data surrounding schools and school leadership through crises such as these, you see how they come through it. Adaptions are made and systems and students cope,” said Kerrie.

Right now, she believed parents needed to decrease their intensive focus on academic gains over this period and ensure they are attuned to the physical and mental welfare needs of their children.

“So much of school is a social and physical experience for students, so my personal efforts have involved setting up a time that would normally be my son’s lunchtime at school to involve three or four of his mates coming together for a chat or to play online games. And, of course, a lot of physical activity. Don’t forget how much running around takes place at school.”

If there are other positives to take out of this, it’s that most kids are now desperate to return to their classrooms. They miss their friends and connection to school communities. And parents have a new level of respect for the work of their teachers.

Whenever Canberra families get to go back, they’ll do so with a heightened appreciation of just how valuable their schools are. And that’s a good thing.

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