On a Wednesday at midnight, an email hits my inbox. A year 12 student is apologising for not doing any online learning that week. She lost income during the lockdown and has taken up extra work in construction during the day to help pay the bills. She is not alone. Lockdowns are a necessary response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Besides, we won’t know their impacts on students’ education for years but the problems started a long time ago. The pressures of coronavirus have merely exposed the systemic inability of public schools to cater for the needs of poor communities that fails to support student welfare.
‘They should’ve hired a counsellor’ gets bandied around my staff room a lot. We are trained for ABCs and discussing Shakespeare, but our work often comes under the ‘welfare’ banner. No one is shocked that teachers buy kids lunches or listen to stories of self-harm at recess, and no one has answered what happens to those kids when they’re learning in unreliable and unsafe households.
The department messed up at the start of lockdown so there is little continuity in approach between schools. Some initially mandated Zoom every lesson to maintain engagement but this model is exhausting for everyone. Currently, at my workplace, students meet year advisors in the morning for a group Zoom welfare check in and then go on to complete their work for the day in whatever form that takes, often on Google Classroom or licensed learning platforms like Compass. During the day, year advisors call parents (or sometimes kids directly) that couldn’t make the zoom to touch base. This is a monstrous amount of emotional/bureaucratic work on top of teaching their classes and there is a deleted gushing paragraph here about how I’m so proud and in awe of my colleagues and students that it makes my face melt in a good way. Despite all this effort, you are lucky to hear from half your kids on a good day.
Public schools are fundamentally designed to cater for the needs of middle-class communities and this structural failure prevents poor kids from using education to advance their wellbeing. Even when we can get computers and internet to students, the chronic underfunding in public education and failure to support students in traumatising situations means they do not have the digital literacy, literacy-literacy or emotional support to be able to do the work. Combined with the isolation of lockdown and separation from support networks at school, more kids than ever are being left behind.
The ratio of school counsellors to students in NSW is 1:750. In a country as wealthy as Australia, this is one of the ways society manufacturers poverty. Education is supposed to be a ladder for everyone in society but if a kid can’t get out of bed then they sure as shit can’t climb a ladder. Teachers are not angels in this regard, and are frequently active participants in the policing of poverty and mental health through the means of ‘discipline’. Discipline is often the only or most readily available toolset afforded to schools for meeting student needs.
Of course, you can do everything with a bayonet except sit on it. Here, unwell, disabled, and disengaged students are transformed into lazy, poorly behaved, and incompetent through the capitalist kaleidoscope of ‘meritocracy’. I am lucky now to be working in a school with the most dedicated and competent teachers I have ever known, but there is no shortage of teachers that treat students like dogs because they, the students, realise their school does not cater for their needs. The government leans on teachers, parents, and charities to pick up their slack but crises like lockdown reveal how limited public schools are in their ability to cater to the needs of poor communities. What are those kids who need lunches and therapy doing when they’ve got no work and no support for months at a time? Your guess is as good as mine.
In the first week of learning online, a student emails me about work and financial pressure. In the second week, a year advisor tells me one of our students has been released from hospital after a mental health crisis. A month ago, I refused to allow this student to exit the classroom until they gave me a high-five and said something positive about themselves. The teachers that would be supporting kids have been separated from them. In the short term of this lockdown, there needs to be qualified mental health professionals visiting at risk kids or vaxxed-up casual teachers whose faces are familiar. The routine trauma of colonisation means some Aboriginal communities have some pre-existing organisations providing this welfare and education support to the best of their abilities on donations and shoestring grants budgets. These are literal lifesavers.
In the long term, schools need to be fundamentally restructured to align with the needs of the communities they serve. The humanistic and economic arguments that inform the way we think about learning are fundamentally misaligned with the social realities many students are faced with. There is no point trying to explain the modern relevance of As You Like It to a child suffering from nicotine withdrawal or neglect. It is not what they need. For a start, mental health professionals and community careers need to be mainstays of many educational environments, not visitors.
Australia is undergoing a mental health crisis. Our schools, students, and children are not exempt. The lockdown has not produced this crisis but dehiscenced (yes, I’m an English teacher) deep wounds of inequality in Australian schools.
Politicians often frame schools as educational solutions to social problems. Our society is deeply misogynistic: teach consent. Our nation’s queer teenagers commit suicide at shameful rates: teach kids about queer people existing. I am under no illusion that schools can solve the fact that any sane person needs 10 g of lexapro to survive a full-time job. However, they may begin to give students the tools to live happily in their lives
Image: kyo azuma