The five reports, concluded this month and made public by the federal government on Monday afternoon, considered the impact of school closures at a time of fierce public debate about when and how ordinary classes should resume.
“Australian children living in poverty will experience exacerbated risk as a consequence of the COVID-19 school interruption,” a report by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne said.
“It’s probable that there will be a significant interruption of learning, access to support for health and wellbeing, 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.
“Importantly, there is a probability that across the education life course, the size of the vulnerable group will increase.”
The University of Melbourne study, led by Professor Janet Clinton, recommended actions such as more support services, more education for teachers and greater digital inclusion, but said many students were already at risk.
“The absence from regular class and support suggests that the level of risk and the number of co-morbidities is likely to be exacerbated. Hence the recovery will be much more difficult,” it said.
A Victoria University study found disadvantaged children could suffer the most from prolonged learning at the computer screen.
“If online delivery were to last for two terms, low socio-economic status and Indigenous students could lose more than six weeks of learning in numeracy and in excess of four weeks of learning in reading,” said a study by the Centre for International Research on Education Systems and the Mitchell Institute.
The study, led by Professor Stephen Lamb, used Naplan tests and other data to calculate the education lost through online learning for those in disadvantaged households.
“Based on an estimated average of 40 school weeks per year, the predicted loss
in learning that would take place due to online delivery can be converted into equivalent
school weeks,” Professor Lamb and his colleagues wrote.
“If the online delivery were to last for four terms (one full school year), disadvantaged Australian year five students may lose the equivalent of 6.1 weeks of learning in reading and 10.7 weeks of learning in numeracy.
“For year nine students, the estimated loss of weeks of learning could amount to 9.2 weeks in reading and as much as 13.3 weeks in numeracy.”
A briefing paper from the Australian Council for Educational Research said the changes could lead to a “continuous cycle of disadvantage” by exacerbating existing disadvantages.
A literature review by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education suggested 20 per cent of the country’s 3.9 million school students were financial disadvantaged.
This review said these 800,000 students would be subject to “barriers and/or risks” from online learning such as educational disengagement, poor technology management and increased psycho-social challenges.
The federal government posted the five reports online on Monday afternoon at the Department of Education, Skills and Employment website.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.