Education Minister James Merlino last month said children with disabilities who could not learn from home could attend school.
But the reality for many families has been different, with children being turned away from school, and principals issuing notices to parents saying “no child is permitted to be at school without approval of the principal”.
Some students with disabilities have exhibited signs of severe distress while trying to adapt to remote online learning, parents say.
Mr Merlino told The Age his department had started trialling new arrangement for families with multiple children, including one with special needs, under whichthey can attend school on at least one day each week.
The trial has begun in Bendigo and Echuca and is being rolled out across the state.
Echuca Specialist School principal Paul Marshall said the arrangement had been well received.
“We have a student who really is a lovely, friendly guy but he wants a lot of attention – to be able to meet his needs is quite significant,” Mr Marshall said.
“That’s why we’ve been able to negotiate … for him to come to school a few days a week and his siblings to go to their mainstream school. That’s able to give our student some one-on-one attention with the mother at home.”
But he said only 40 per cent of his workforce are able to teach from school for a few days a week.
One Melbourne mother, who has an 11-year-old son with an intellectual disability, said remote online learning has stripped away her son’s ability to process information. She said he had become distressed, tearing apart his clothes and smearing faeces in the bathroom.
“It is so hard, it is so full-on in ordinary circumstances, that people don’t have much more energy or fight to give in extraordinary circumstances,” she said.
“Our role as parents is to supervise but you step away to watch another child, for example, or you need to walk, study, have other children who are doing online learning … it’s layer upon layer, it’s not like being home on a Saturday.”
Mr Merlino saidschools were expected to apply common sense to their decision-making about who should go to school.
“We know how challenging this situation can be and that is why special schools can proactively offer onsite provision as required,” he said.
The reality, parents say, has not matched the minister’s edict, with children being turned away from school because their parents are either working or studying from home.
Rowville father and Knox City councillor Darren Pearce said he was worried for the thousands of children with disabilities who have been unable to adjust to home-based learning.
Mr Pearce, whose 13-year-old son Simon is on the autism spectrum and attends a specialist school, fears his child’s social skills have regressed significantly.
“The school does live streaming via Zoom with their classmates, but he’s not comfortable participating in that environment.
“He’s weakest in his social skills and they are going backwards because of this isolation,” Mr Pearce said.
“This is the challenge: he can do the work if he wants to but keeping his focus and attention going is a problem and that’s why you need a full-time class environment.”
But not all children can do the work even if they wanted to. Another Melbourne mother, who declined to be named, said her 14-year-old son with a severe intellectual disability, who is non-verbal and has the cognitive age of a two-year-old, had “flatly refused” to engage with the resources.
“He doesn’t understand that it’s school work, and he has no idea why I’m in his face … to him, home is home and school is school,” the mother says.
“[Authorities] have forgotten, or just thrown special needs kids under a bus. I know they issue these edicts saying school’s closed but your children can learn from home, which is all very well for your neurotypical kids but for kids like my son, it’s not an option.”
Opposition education spokeswoman Cindy McLeish said it was imperative to not apply a blanket approach to learning, particularly for children with disabilities whose needs cannot be easily met at home.
“The teachers who teach in this sector are really specialised and have great skills and know what to do,” Ms McLeish said.
“These children learning remotely is not necessarily appropriate.
Cameron Peveret, president of the Principals’ Association of Specialist Schools Victoria, said schools were providing a variety of activities for children to do at home based on their needs, including engaging them in household chores.
“We’re in a health crisis, not an education crisis … I would hope that schools are communicating that the education is of less importance than keeping our kids healthy and safe,” Mr Peverett said.
“This interruption is not going to be enough to make a significant impact – some kids are thriving in this environment.”
Sumeyya is a state political reporter for The Age.