Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic

Foreword – Mark Scott

While the word ‘unprecedented’ has likely been overused in recent months, it continues to be apt for the period of disruption that we have experienced in schools across the state, the nation and the world in 2020 so far. Coming off the back of the worst bushfire season in the state’s history and widespread flooding, COVID-19 brought unique challenges to learning and teaching in our schools.

The impact of COVID-19 on education is estimated to be affecting over a billion learners, or over 60% of all students worldwide through school closures. The steps taken to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on students’ in NSW schools, as detailed in this report, demonstrate the department’s; and Education System’s commitment to ensuring every student is known, valued and cared for in our schools.

The migration to at-home learning, then a staged return followed by fully operational classrooms, marked an extremely challenging time. It also highlighted the incredible work that is done across the education system. Our schools remained open for students who needed them and both school and corporate staff worked to deliver platforms and materials to provide for continuity of a quality education for all students during that time.

We are grateful for all of the work of our school-based staff who have made unprecedented changes to the way they worked to ensure the continuity of learning for our students. We now begin the work of how we can take the best aspects of this time, to continue to improve Education into the future.

Our work is essential to all our communities, more so now than ever. We must ensure we can continue to support our students. One of the department’s key goals is that every student, every teacher, every leader and every school improves every year. Reflecting on the lessons learned during this time will help us to achieve that goal despite the disruption caused by COVID-19.

To all who have worked so hard supporting learning – be it in schools, early childhood centres, training colleges or by our corporate staff – thank you for your great professionalism, dedication and resourcefulness. On any given work day, there is no organisation that connects in such an important way, with so many people, than NSW Education.

Executive summary

The NSW Department of Education has responsibility for the operation of 2,200 public schools educating over 800,000 students. Ensuring the safety and continuity of education for each of those students while responding to the COVID-19 pandemic demanded a tremendous effort from teachers, principals and staff in all of our schools. Our corporate staff in the department worked creatively and collaboratively, in a co-ordinated effort to provide our schools with the support they needed through this period. The department also worked with the non-government school and early childhood education (ECE) sectors to ensure they were also appropriately supported and equipped to respond to this emergency.

The COVID-19 pandemic immediately followed one of the worst bushfire events in this state’s history and widespread flooding events throughout the state. The department and our schools have been responding to crises since August 2019. Many of the same central teams required to respond to bushfire emergencies, were required for the COVID-19 response.

While this review is focussed on the learnings from the response to COVID-19 in particular, this response cannot be wholly separated out from the context of these multiple crises. The depth of capacity required to respond to multiple emergencies simultaneously and/or concurrently is something that the department, along with the rest of the NSW Government, will have to consider moving forward.

The current low case numbers as a result of the NSW Government’s response in suppressing COVID-19 provided an opportunity to reflect on the response to date, and identify some of the innovative practices that should be retained as we transition to a ‘new normal’. For the Department of Education in particular, our response has highlighted the capacity of the department to be agile and responsive to emerging needs. As has been noted by the Premier, until we have a vaccine, COVID-19 is something we have to live with. Cases are likely to continue to occur, including in our schools, through the coming months. The response to date has positioned the department to continue to effectively manage COVID-19 and any further changes as they arise.

One of the most striking learnings from the response to COVID-19 has been the willingness of individuals and teams throughout the department to ensure the health, safety, learning and wellbeing of the students and staff across our school system. United in the crisis by the common purpose of supporting each and every student, we were able to work quickly and effectively with a solution-focused approach.

The department’s response to COVID-19 was focused on three key objectives:

  • ensuring continuity of quality education
  • ensuring every student is known, valued and cared for in our schools
  • keeping schools safe and clean.

Ensuring continuity of quality education

The circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic required us, over a few short weeks, to turn the entire model of educational delivery in NSW on its head. On Tuesday 24 March, the Premier encouraged parents, where possible, to keep their children at home. NSW students transitioned to learning remotely quickly. By Monday 30 March over 90.67% students were learning remotely. By the last day of Term 1 it was 94%.

To support remote learning, the department launched a Learning from Home hub to provide students, teaching staff and parents with a centralised bank of resources, support mechanisms and practical advice. Professional learning sessions for teachers and support staff in how best to utilise the department’s online digital tools were rolled out rapidly. The resources were continually updated and expanded to maintain teaching and learning throughout the COVID-19 response. The online capacities, innovations and collaborative practices developed through this period of remote learning and transition back to the classroom have the potential to hold many insights for our ongoing work in creating the best education system in the world. Exploring the ways to utilise technology and enhance collaborative teaching practices can support the department’s strategic agenda to improve student educational outcomes, is a clear opportunity from this experience.

To maintain both continuity and equity of access for all students, schools remained open for students who needed to attend. Every child was provided with access to the same learning activities regardless of their learning mode. This ‘single unit of work’ ensured equity and consistency in curriculum delivery.

Ensuring every student is known, valued and cared for in our schools

The individual students across the NSW school system were central to our response during this time. Working to support the individual learning needs of each and every one of our students was a priority in our response. This was supported centrally, through the provision of additional devices and cross-agency work to identify and prioritise our students at greatest risk of disengaging with the Education System. However, as always, it is our staff in schools across the state that are best able to identify, engage and support individual students. We now have an opportunity to leverage the response to COVID-19 to not only ensure students aren’t disadvantaged due to this period, but to more effectively alleviate educational disadvantage in our learning communities.

A significant moment in the response to COVID-19 was the announcement of the managed return to school during the school holiday period. The managed return to school plan sought to ensure every student is known, valued and cared for in our schools through the way in which it reinforced that every child should have an equal opportunity to attend school physically at least one day a week.

An important factor in the announcement of the managed return to school plan was not just that Education was leading the way to the recovery phase of COVID-19, but that our colleagues in the Catholic and Independent school sectors stood alongside us in announcing this unified, cross-sector approach to returning to school. The work across sectors for one Education System throughout this approach has been commendable and gives us a roadmap for how these sectors can continue to work together for the best outcomes for students in the future.

This also highlighted the importance of our communication and engagement with all of our stakeholders from peak bodies to individual teachers. Rapidly emerging information about the nature and risks of COVID-19 meant we had to be agile in our response. For our schools, that generally plan months in advance, this changing landscape presented particular difficulties. Maintaining a single source of truth, and combatting misinformation, became critically important in this context to ensure our large school system could be on the same page at any point in time. Finding ways to better communicate directly with our teachers and to engage them in informing our response will be important in taking forward the learnings identified in this report.

Keeping schools safe and clean

COVID-19 has created a clear focus across the Education System on the importance of reinforcing hygiene practices in schools, such as hand hygiene, that should be maintained. Significant efforts were focused on ensuring schools could effectively implement the advice from NSW Health and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC). This included ensuring appropriate infection control procedures along with cleaning and hygiene measures were in place, as well as implementing procedures for identifying and responding to cases in our schools.

Pressure on supply chains affected our schools as well as the broader population. The department responded by rapidly standing up a centralised supply distribution system to support the schools unable to locally source necessary hygiene products. The department exceeded its responsibilities under the NSW Government Human Influenza Pandemic Plan, identifying and managing risks across the Education portfolio and beyond areas of operational and legislative accountability by ensuring non-government schools and the ECE sector had access to hygiene supplies.

While NSW has been remarkably successful in suppressing the COVID-19 pandemic to date, the continued rise in cases worldwide highlights that the threat has not yet passed. We must remain vigilant to ensure we are playing our part in minimising the spread. The fact that we are still in the midst of responding to COVID-19, means that it is not yet possible to understand the full impact of COVID-19 on our students’ learning or the effectiveness of our response. There will clearly be a need for a thorough review of the overall response in future.

For now, what is important is that we don’t lose sight of the excellent achievements and innovations that have emerged from this unprecedented time. The pandemic has fast-tracked innovation which may fundamentally change and improve the way we deliver education into the future. We can immediately start the work of capturing, sharing and embedding those innovations in the way we deliver education.

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