With students in Victoria spending some 100 school days in lockdown in 2020 alone, the number of students expelled from school was the lowest in a decade. However, of the expelled students, almost one in three had a disability – more than double the rate of 2019.
Absenteeism and disengagement from school, especially in under-resourced communities, is a problem that long predates the COVID-19 pandemic. But the past few years have seen a sharpened severity of the problem while awareness around the issue continues to bypass mainstream understanding.
The perfect storm to further alienate children from school
At-risk children and teenagers suffered disproportionately when schools closed their doors and students had to undertake remote learning almost overnight in 2020 and again in 2021. Attempting to do their schoolwork in under-resourced homes where laptops or Internet access weren’t readily available only scratched the surface of their challenges.
Online learning also contributed to classic protective layers provided by schools suddenly being ripped away – protections such as the predictability of routine, the opportunity for social interactions, and the face to face advantage of teachers and other school staff closely assessing and monitoring a student’s physical or mental wellbeing.
Although in 2022 school life is now more or less back to normal, the repercussions of the many months of locked-down education continue to permeate daily life for students, teachers and families. The education sector is now in a position of playing catch up – trying to effectively reconnect students back to schools, their former standards of academic success, and their former friendship groups.
For students with disabilities or learning difficulties, restrictions throughout the pandemic meant they missed appointments for services such as speech therapy and occupational therapy. This led to further disengagement from school, and for those who have re-engaged when lockdowns ended, many are far behind their peers academically and are finding it increasingly challenging to catch up.
A focus on support, not punishment
The statistics highlighting the number of students with disabilities being expelled is nothing short of disturbing. Expelling children with disabilities in 2020 – a year of intense social and economic pressure for many – created additional burdens for families who might have had to give up work in order to care for an expelled child. Expelling a child based on behaviours that can be attributed to their disability points to an acute failure in the system to provide care and support for the individual, and is not a reflection of the individual student themselves.
There needs to be comprehensive changes in services and support (both inside and outside of the classroom) to welcome disengaged students back into schools after two years of disruption. Expulsion is at its core a reprimanding action and is not conducive to engaging or re-engaging students with their schooling. Support is what is needed.
But how can we achieve the level of support required? It starts with more effective collaboration between NGOs and schools, with a focus on disadvantaged or marginalised communities. The Department of Education needs to be more proactive in understanding students’ wellbeing, and make a more concerted effort to distil the short and long-term impacts of the pandemic on their engagement with school. It cannot just be an exercise in moving on and hoping for the best. The past two years resulted in a disintegration of mental health and academic outcomes for many students and this must be faced head on.
For at-risk youth who are reluctant to effectively participate in mainstream education, there needs to be alternative programs or safe spaces built to provide them with other pathways to learning.
This way, no child or young person is left behind, and we can empower the future generations to thrive as adults.
Image by Tomé Louro