Online education has been a challenge for teachers, students and parents but feelings are mixed about next week’s official return to the classroom.
The gradual easing of COVID-19 restrictions will see students back at school for one day a week, as of Monday (May 11).
The Department of Education’s return to school guide for families shows it is the first step in a four-phase plan for students to return to a normal five day week.
Karen* (who asked for her full name to be withheld) is a Sydney primary school teacher and a reading specialist for kindergarten. She anticipates that students’ learning progressions while they were being home-schooled, will be on a “sliding scale”.
“There are children [who] have responded to everything and parents have been in communication,” she said, “but then on the other end of the scale, we’ve got children we haven’t heard from. It’s going to be hard, but they’ve got to start somewhere”.
Despite the challenges ahead, Karen* is looking forward to returning to school and seeing her students.
“I think it’s very clear they are missing their friends and teachers.”
Lucy*, a Visual Arts teacher on Sydney’s upper North Shore (who also asked for her full name to be withheld) says that returning to school on a part-time basis will be “extremely challenging”.
“Essentially, we will be babysitting and helping students while still trying to manage online learning at the same time,” she said.
Mother of two girls in years six and nine, Guerlain Pearce, says her kids are looking forward to going back to school.
“My eldest is not interacting with her peers much and often gets lonely. My youngest is finding it harder to stay focused and misses her friends,” she said.
It was in the final weeks of Term 1 that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian asked parents to keep their children home, leaving teachers with the task of moving classes online.
That was a challenge Karen* had to overcome. Her school made a fast transition to online learning using the app Seesaw which allows teachers to design interactive lessons.
“It was just a stressful time because we were thrown into this new app. Like anything, you panic at first… so you had to sometimes take a deep breath, walk away and come back.”
She says a big challenge was ensuring the students felt like there was two-way interaction. “We were able to do that through Seesaw by making sure [that] for all activities, our voices were recorded. And when reading books, students saw our faces.”
Karen* says there has been a big jump in online learning and where teachers can go with it.
“We’ve been thrown into the deep end and most of us have come out swimming.”
However, for high school teacher Lucy*, the transition to online wasn’t that smooth.
“There was a lot of uncertainty and mixed communication that created a lot of stress for students and staff,” she said.
As an arts teacher, Lucy* had to create new units of work that could be accessible to all students at home. In her Year 10 Photography class for instance, she asked students to submit photographic narratives of “Life in Isolation”.
For students who struggle to comprehend written instructions, she also creates instructional videos to explain the tasks.
“I have been getting a lot of feedback that they (students) are struggling to be self-directed, and looking at a screen all day is definitely not an engaging way to learn.”
Guerlain Pearce says her girls prefer their teachers in a face-to-face classroom environment.
“My eldest was looking forward to some of her classes because of the teachers who were passionate about their subjects and [because of] their teaching style,” she said. “This is missing from online learning.”
According to the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS), which looked into COVID-19 in NSW schools, there was “no evidence of children infecting teachers”. The results so far “suggest that spread of COVID-19 within NSW schools has been very limited”.
“I think at this stage their mental health is more at risk than their risk of becoming infected,” Ms Pearce said.
She is confident that schools will make the best decisions for the health of their students and teachers. At the same time, she says that if she isn’t comfortable with the situation, she isn’t afraid to remove her girls from school, and thinks other parents would do the same.
Although social distancing rules won’t apply in the classroom, teachers are still taking precautions.
Karen* says that her school has spaced out all the desks and chairs but it is hard to maintain distance when you’re dealing with little children.
“As soon as any of the children show any symptoms of a cough or a sniffle, they go straight home.”
Lucy* however, previously had to bring in her own cleaning supplies to the classroom as they weren’t supplied. She is concerned about infecting others and the possible consequences of a second wave of infections.
“There is a lot of anxiety from both teachers and students about getting sick and making others sick,” she said.
“I think the way schools were functioning at the end of last term worked well – schools were open for kids that needed to attend, but those that could, stayed home.”
— Tanna Nankivell @TannaNankivell