Every student is known
Ensuring a response that was equitable was a key priority in responding to COVID-19.
This underpinned the approach in the managed return to school which ensured that every child would receive at least one day a week of face-to-face contact with their school. Schools remained open throughout the pandemic and students who were not able to learn from home could attend. This was critical to ensure students always had a safe place to undertake their learning.
What was done?
Provision of digital devices
To facilitate student’s access to online and digital learning resources while learning remotely the department complemented the existing provision of more than 200,000 devices in schools purchased through the 4-year Computer Equipment Refresh program. The department ordered 23,574 digital learning devices to supplement those schools who did not have enough equipment to share with their highly vulnerable students. This included Stage 6 students as a priority focus. As well as laptops and tablets, around 5,500 dongles and modems were secured to assist students to connect to the online or digital learning materials.
There were significant challenges in distributing these devices to schools in a timely manner. These were primarily external including:
- procurement pressures to secure devices in competition with large organisations transitioning to remote working
- supply chain constraints impacting on equipment manufacturers such as Dell and Acer, delaying delivery of an order for 10,900 devices.
These external challenges were exacerbated by a lack of central asset management about available devices and specific needs. This resulted in many schools not receiving their digital learning devices until the return of school in Term 2, 2020 as the decision was made for students and teachers to return to the classroom.
These experiences were very similar to CSNSW and AISNSW with many Principals working closely with their school community to identify students in need prior to submitting their data through an online ICT survey in the week of 23 March 2020.
A number of existing department programs continue to seek to address the divide in access to devices and online environments. This includes the completed Connecting Country Schools program. Schools are also able to use their existing school budgets to supplement their equipment inventory to support students in need.
Students could also elect to use their own devices and, subject to some policy guidelines, have the same experience as those who use departmental equipment. This policy freed up devices for use by students who did not have access to personal equipment. Additionally, schools were able to deliver remote learning in offline or blended formats to support the particular circumstances of their students.
The challenges of full digital access across NSW cannot be solved by the Education System alone. However the Education System can be a part of the solution and should continue to engage with other government and non-government agencies in addressing this ongoing issue. Improved central data on the device holdings and gaps across all schools will assist in this work. COVID-19 provides an impetus to truly address the digital divide and to narrow the gap with an aim to close that gap within a reasonable specified timeframe once and for all. This would place our Education System as an educational world leader in this area and ensure equity of access to all NSW students is achieved, regardless of geographical location or socio-economic standing.
Additional supports for vulnerable students
A state-wide model supports schools where highly vulnerable students have been identified. Local School Services staff and Child Wellbeing Unit staff coordinated support for highly vulnerable students. The Student Support Coordination process continued to support schools with students at potential risk of becoming disengaged from their learning throughout COVID-19.
Student Support Coordination provides on the ground support to schools, including linking them into local and other department supports and external services, when issues are beyond the schools resources or the school has exhausted the levers available to them. This coordination continues to be a key resource to schools as they support students who may be at risk of educational disadvantage now that students are learning face-to-face again.
The department has monitored student attendance throughout the period of COVID-19. Now that face-to-face learning has resumed it has become apparent that some students may have found it more difficult to re-engage in school on a full-time basis. This includes students who have anxiety, those whose family’s circumstances has been impacted by COVID-19, those with disability or who have difficultly regulating their behaviour. The department is working very closely with these students and their families on an individual basis to support a return to school. It should be noted that less than 1% of students in public schools have not returned to onsite learning since 25 May 2020, a number of which are related to pre-existing health conditions that make the student more vulnerable at this time. Some of these students could greatly benefit from a flexible learning model so they remain engaged in their learning and stay connected with peers.
During the remote learning period, some students became more engaged in their learning, experienced less anxiety and received more immediate feedback from their teachers and that this enhanced their learning. This includes students who may have otherwise be at increased risk of being disengaged from their learning.
Across the Education System, there are rich examples of schools adjusting their operations to maintain strong connections with their school community over the remote learning period. For example, one Connected Communities public school assisted in maintaining a sense of school community during the pandemic, through delivering boxes of ingredients to families for a cooking challenge. The initiative provided practical support to families, as well as supporting student’s education and life skills development.
Work to maintain connections was highlighted across sectors, including one catholic primary school in inner-city Sydney which remained open to provide food and other material support, including a space to wash clothes, for its families. Throughout the COVID-19 period, support quickly widened to other families in need in the area. For a period of time, the school effectively transformed into social service to support local families. The approach meant that students remained connected to the school and aided in the return to face-to-face learning programs.
The department has expanded its existing strategies, and launched new ones, to support the mental health and wellbeing of staff and students during the COVID-19 response. This initiative was expanded to include the role of school leaders and parents and carers in the process of learning remotely.
Education systems identified quickly that they needed to maintain ongoing delivery of student counselling services. The establishment of tele (telephone) counselling and online counselling services to maintain and deliver support during the period of remote learning became critical to ensuring students had a person to speak to, and for any additional referrals to take place across other government agencies to support that child.
Teachers made regular and frequent contact with students to monitor student learning progress and overall wellbeing through telephone calls, line of sight live video conference calls, email and in some of the smaller communities by driving past students homes.
A virtual online wellbeing staffroom was established for teachers and school staff to share ideas and resources to support wellbeing of students. The staffroom is also connecting staff with each other to reduce isolation for people who may be working in rural and remote locations.
New or expanded initiatives were underpinned by targeted, collaborative multidisciplinary core teams. Education staff indicated that initiatives for vulnerable students worked well because they were driven by small Student Care Coordination (SCC) teams with differing and complementary skillsets, areas of expertise and connections. The collaborative, multidisciplinary approach of individual teams extended to their workings with other areas of the department and external agencies. Stakeholders reported that cross-department partnerships and collaborations emerged that broke down silos across business units and across levels. Moreover, stakeholders reported that there was strong collaboration and data sharing with other relevant agencies such as the Department of Communities and Justice and Ministry of Health.
These multidisciplinary teams were empowered to act autonomously and speedily, increasing their effectiveness and impact on students and their families. For example, the team responsible for supporting the delivery of the telecounselling services was able to secure the online telehealth platform, Covue, through an expedited procurement process. The efficiencies created by these new ways of working may present opportunities to further optimise business processes and ways of working in the future.
The department’s commitment to delivering an inclusive Education System that meets the needs of all students remained consistent throughout COVID-19. Inclusion means that all students, regardless of disability, can access and fully participate in learning alongside their peers, with reasonable adjustments and tailored teaching strategies aligned to their individual needs. To ensure all students were appropriately supported and included during the remote learning period, the department undertook several initiatives to support flexible learning modes. The virtual state-wide staffroom for Disability Learning and Support teachers and support staff was one of the largest staffrooms initiated by the department. This enabled staff to share ideas, experiences and curriculum resources and maintain connections with colleagues.
The rapid rollout of initiatives during this period often meant that the opportunity to collect rich data to assess the impact and success was missed. There was often a tension in maintaining the balance between providing schools with sufficient support for students with additional learning needs and not impinging on school autonomy. There may be an opportunity to examine the wrap-around supports provided to teachers to fulfil their responsibility to adequately support their students, including delivering personalised learning plans for students with disability, learning and support needs. There is an opportunity to also explore how successful the SCC initiative was and whether this should continue.
Support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students
Throughout the COVID-19 period, the Education System continued to provide a wide range of academic and cultural supports to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. This included reinforcing existing programs and developing new modes of delivery. For example, the department’s Aboriginal Education and Communities Directorate, in partnership with the Clontarf Foundation and Role Models and Leaders Australia, formulated a ‘high tech, low tech, no tech’ engagement model for external contractors to ensure that all Aboriginal students were supported and engaged while learning remotely. Similarly, Aboriginal Education Workers with CSNSW developed resources and provided information for teachers and parents so that the needs of students were being addressed, and Aboriginal Cultural Advisors continued to provide cultural lessons online. In some instances, this led to improved relationships with families.
Support for students with English as an additional language or dialect
Maintaining continuity of English learning, providing additional support in community languages and combatting online racism was critical to ensuring students with English as an additional language or dialect (EAL/D) and refugee students continued to succeed. The department extended intensive English support for students whose English language development and learning may have been impacted by COVID-19. It also engaged Multicultural Education advisors to provide professional learning, support and curriculum resources for teachers of EAL/D and refugee students, and published new translations in up to 35 community languages to assist schools in communicating key COVID-19 messages to families.
Support for international students
DE International supported international students to continue learning from abroad or from the homes of relatives or homestays in NSW. As at 22 June 2020, there were 197 international students offshore, unable to commence or resume their studies in NSW due to COVID-19 travel bans. There were also 448 international students over 18 and not living with a relative or homestay carer who required additional support. In response, DE International undertook several initiatives including providing local language support to parents of international students through online information sessions, issuing direct communications to homestay providers for distribution to students and homestay families, and establishing a WeChat information and support group for students in China which is monitored daily. The team worked closely with a number of schools to setup Microsoft Teams classrooms. The Microsoft Teams platform was tested to ensure it would work behind foreign government firewalls so students could remain connected with their teachers and peers when they were unable to access other online department platforms.
What was the impact?
Estimates indicate that the remote learning period may have increased the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. The rollout of additional assessment and reporting supports will assist the department and individual schools in understanding the impact of the remote learning period on individual students over time.
There have been a significant number of examples where the remote learning period provided an environment where otherwise disengaged students have been able to thrive.
Learning in action: Schools Digital Strategy
The importance of ensuring the NSW Education System is equipped with the digital skills needed in the future, including through device equity, had been identified prior to COVID-19 through the Schools Digital Strategy. This seven-year strategy aims to empower schools to determine their own digital future and be supported with the digital skills and tools they need to succeed. COVID-19 necessarily expedited some of the longer-term visions of the strategy, such as virtual learning spaces. Consideration of the learnings from COVID-19 will inform the continued development of the Schools Digital Strategy, including reinforcing the importance of digital equity.
What should be kept or changed as a result?
The department quickly identified that the impacts of COVID 19 would heighten the needs of students already identified as being vulnerable, and make other students vulnerable for the first time. There is an opportunity to continue and expand the supports put in place to support these students.
The remote learning period created barriers for some students, while removing barriers for others. Consideration should be given to adapting or enhancing flexible learning modes to create a more inclusive Education System.
Multidisciplinary teams, cross-departmental collaborations and streamlined ways of working were critical to success in supporting vulnerable students. The department should consider ways to continue outcomes-driven and customer-focused teams and collaborative projects.
Infrastructure and supply chain challenges meant that not all teachers and students had access to an appropriate web-enabled device to participate in online learning. Schools were enabled to respond to their particular community needs. The learnings from this period should inform the continued rollout of the Schools Digital Strategy, including considering implementation of a 1:1 student to device ratios and improving central visibility of devices held across the department and their loan status.