Talking to parents and carers about “learning at home”

QTU President's comment: 17 April 2020

While the scale, intensity and longevity of the COVID-19 crisis are unlike anything we have experienced before, Queensland is well placed to manage the impacts of such an “event” on schools and learning.

Every year, Queensland education is impacted by events that make the normal conduct of school and learning by students unsafe or impossible. These events may impact individuals and their families, communities or regions. Never before in the modern era has an event impacted the entire state, indeed the nation and the world at the same time. This new context requires a new response, and learning at home addresses exactly this situation. It is not business as usual, things must be different and different makes people anxious.

Many teachers are parents, carers and grandparents, we all have families that we love and care for. Our lived experience, coupled with many years of education and professional experience, has provided us with valuable insights into the challenges of learning at home that we can draw on to provide support and advice for others.

The Department of Education as an employer has deeply embedded processes in place to support learning at home. Years of experience in Queensland, especially managing the impact of natural disasters on education, dictates that this should be the case – and it is. The Learning@home website predates the COVID-19 crisis and has been supporting parents and carers to get students learning at home for some time. It is definitely worth reading the materials it provides to frame your work at school and your communications with parents during this time. Critically, the materials support learning at home – they do not replace the curriculum and schools will make the final decisions about implementation of an appropriate program, which may include all or parts of the learning at home support materials. Parents and carers are not being asked to be teachers, as teachers you will be at work, at school or at your own home doing your part to support learning at home.

At the most basic level, parents and carers who are required to keep their children at home at this time are being asked to parent: to supervise their children just like they would for the 18 hours a day that their children are not at school. The requirements for learning at home are met through a wealth of centrally-prepared and school-moderated materials published via multiple channels, including traditional paper copies for families that have no internet access, unreliable internet access or no suitable device for learning at home.

Talking to parents and carers about the changes that have been made to make the task “doable” is also important. Distance education experts, including QTU Honorary Vice-President Jenny Swadling, talk about a maximum of three hours of learning at home per day, not the six hours students would normally attend school. Parents and carers can use the supplied learning materials in a flexible way that suits them and their children. Schools will likely suggest a timetable, but parents and carers need to be reassured that they can adjust this to work around expectations in the home. Establishing a learning space in the home, sticking to a routine (including breaks for meals) and making learning fun are also worthwhile pieces of advice.

Simple and often pleasurable things like learning through play and having a child read a favourite book out loud are also valid activities. Parents and carers should trust themselves to be able to use their experience managing homework, assignments and other school activities completed at home to support their children to learn at home during the COVID-19 crisis.

It is exceptionally confusing that adults and children must not use equipment in a park, can’t go to a public library or sporting ground, must only undertake essential travel, must only leave the home to exercise, participate in necessary shopping or visit a doctor, and yet can still attend school. Let’s be frank, the message on social distancing has been clearly and repeatedly driven home to the whole community, and schools are not somehow magically immune to the risks of infection to those who work and learn there posed by the coronavirus.

Social distancing in the manner required for maintaining good health and safety is not possible in schools without a significant reduction in the number of students in attendance. An average school classroom of 52 square metres can accommodate no more than 12 students and a teacher. Smaller classrooms, of course, can only accommodate fewer students. Social distancing is not a nicety, it is essential.

Whether you are a parent/carer and a teacher or not, people are experiencing anxiety about the safety of their students among their peers at schools or about their own personal safety as a worker in a school. This represents a rational level of concern and the QTU and the Department of Education have been working hard to address this by providing certainty for everyone about what will happen in schools from the beginning of Term 2.

If you are a parent/carer and a teacher, you may hold significant concerns about what is the best thing to do for your children. As an essential worker, you are of course entitled to send your children to school while you attend school to teach other children. The irony of this situation is regularly pointed out to us by frustrated members, but that is a reality we must deal with. If your child is vulnerable to COVID-19 as a result of a chronic illness or health condition, the new provisions in the department guidelines allow you to work from home if you can provide a medical certificate from your child’s doctor stating that you are fit for duty but must keep your child at home because of their health condition. The Department of Education currently requires that students attend the school in which they are enrolled and does not support children attending the school at which you work when they are not enrolled as a student, except where those students are returning to communities from boarding facilities.

The partnership between teachers and parents/carers is intrinsic to the education system, and it is normally intense, strong and enduring. What we will go through together over the coming weeks has the potential to draw us closer together as we continue to promote the importance of learning for Queensland’s young people in a measured and productive way. Thank you for all that you have done as teachers and principals to prepare for the new way of educating, and thanks for all you will be doing to deliver that learning to students at home and for those who must attend school. Thanks also to the parents and carers of school-aged children who will be doing so much to ensure that their young people can continue their learning journey, albeit via a different path.

Kevin Bates

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