NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian yesterday announced school students would return to face-to-face classrooms in a staggered fashion from May 11, the third week of term. She said students would initially return for one day a week, and their time at school would be increased as the term progressed.
She said by term three, she hoped all students would be back at school full time.
But schools were given flexibility on how this return may look. NSW education minister Sarah Mitchell said
We want them [schools] to make sure they are having about a quarter of students [from each grade] on campus each day […] But how they break that group up will be a matter for them.
The NSW government said students would complete the same coursework whether they were at home or on campus during the staggered return.
This announcement is a quick turnaround from only a few weeks ago, when the NSW government said parents must keep their children at home if they could. In the latest press conference, the government said 95% of students were working from home during the final weeks of term one.
There are a few possible reasons for NSW to have made this decision. It allows children to re-connect with teachers and peers; it is one way to have fewer students on campus at any one time; it helps parents observe physical distancing during drop-off and pick-up times; and it allows a systematic escalation to two days, then three days and so on.
A staggered return to school starts moving the wheels of school campuses and infrastructure out of hibernation, at the same time helping some parents and carers return to work.
But as an educational psychologist, I am also considering this difficult decision from the perspective of the students who may be most at need of returning to class. These include those in year 12 and students in kindergarten.
Specific year groups should take precedence
It’s worth schools considering staggering the return to school from a “whole-cohort perspective” (such as all of year 12). This tries to take into account what specific cohorts of students need, developmentally and educationally.
Schools will differ in how they implement these ideas and will need to balance educational with physical distancing concerns – and their capacity to manage groups of students in the context of their physical and staffing environment.
The cohort that has the least amount of time to acquire time-sensitive learning would be all of year 12. There are university-bound year 12 students who would benefit from being well on top of the syllabus knowledge that is assumed in their target university course.
There are also students bound for TAFE and apprenticeships who need to get practical experience, key competencies or work placement hours.
So if the health advice allows for the staggered approach the NSW government is proposing, it is worth considering that all year 12s return to school five days per week.
Moving into “big school” is a massive developmental transition which has been disrupted for the 2020 kindergarten cohort.
These children need a solid early foundation of core social, emotional, literacy and numeracy competencies.
Years six and seven
Year six is the final year of primary school. It is where social, emotional and academic competencies are being honed and rounded ready for high school. And for year sevens, the transition to high school is a major psychological and academic adjustment, laying important foundations for their high school journey.
Some universities are considering last year’s year 11 results for application for 2021 course entry. While the hope is everything will be back to normal come next year, there is the brutal reality that some nations have experienced second waves of COVID-19.
There is no vaccine yet, and we are only very gingerly taking baby-steps in easing restrictions.
This means we may need to take actions this year to insure year 11s against the possibility of school and assessment disruptions when they are in year 12 next year.
We need to do our best to avoid widening any existing learning gaps during the remote learning period. Schools could encourage academically at-risk students – such as those with learning disorders, or executive function disorders such as ADHD – to start attending targeted in-class learning. This could allow for some bridging instruction so these students can make a strong start when the rest of their year group returns to in-class instruction.
Managing the numbers
An approach where initially only some year levels go to school while others remain learning remotely may make it easier for teachers.
It is not straightforward to develop both an in-class and a remote learning instructional program to accommodate a one day return, then two days and the like. Teachers are concerned at the extra workload this approach may mean for them.
There may also be significant between-school and between-teacher differences in how this is done – potentially leading to an uneven playing field for a given year group.
Teachers know how to teach a whole year group in class for five days of the week – and students know very well how to learn in this mode.
As we continue to navigate uncharted waters, there will be no perfect approach. Whatever the decision and however it is implemented, we must continue to be guided by our health experts, and we must hasten slowly.
Authors: Andrew J. Martin, Scientia Professor and Professor of Educational Psychology, UNSW