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Senior academic supports states reopening schools

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“The longer that Australian schools remain closed or partially closed, the worse our gap between advantaged and less advantaged students will become.”

Dr Leila Morsy

In last week’s Amplify we shared why vulnerable children need ECEC now more than ever, but that need is not limited to early childhood.

As Term 2 starts in NSW, the debate continues around whether schools should fully reopen, and how it should be done.

Senior health education lecturer Dr Leila Morsy firmly believes that we must urgently reopen schools if we do not want to see a multigenerational chasm widen between our more advantaged children and those from families of concentrated disadvantage.

According to Dr Morsy, from Flinders University’s Prideaux Centre, failing to fully reopen schools at the start of term 2 will see Australians paying the price for generations to come.

“Towards the end of the last term, many schools partially or entirely shut their doors to students and started delivering instruction online. State and federal policymakers have not yet set a date for reopening school buildings to children, despite current evidence suggesting that children seem to be negligible spreaders of the disease.

“Children at risk of losing ground during school closures are those whose parents have lower levels of educational attainment, children from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island backgrounds, students with special needs, children from low-income families, and children from rural and remote areas.”

It’s not only academic gaps that Dr Morsy is concerned about, but gaps that could spread into health outcomes and non-cognitive skills including self-motivation, enrolment and completion of high school, and even future adult earnings.

While that may seem like a long bow to draw, we know that school engagement and participation can impact on adult educational and occupational achievement1, as well as health and welfare.

“For many children, school is a safe place to go during the week. For many who come from difficult circumstances, it is perhaps the only safe place. When schools are closed, at-risk children will suffer greater exposure to violence, abuse, and neglect,” says Dr Morsy.

“These adverse experiences are predictive of a range of depressed academic, behavioural, and health outcomes, including difficulty paying attention, and greater risk of aggressive and violent behaviour, eczema, obesity, respiratory infections, and teen pregnancy.”

Many schools have quickly moved to online delivery formats, enabling what may seem at first glance like a fairly ‘seamless’ transition to remote learning. However, many students in vulnerable and disadvantaged areas do not have access to the tools, means, supervision or quiet space to turn online delivery into actual learning.

Dr Morsy points out that home academic support will be more effective for children from advantaged backgrounds who will have greater supervision, additional educational and social resources such as apps and educational games, leaving those already at risk of falling behind likely to fall further.

While we are all doing a great job of social distancing and ‘flattening the curve’ in Australia, let’s not forget about our most vulnerable community members. If they are not attending school, who is watching? Who is looking out for them?

Dr Leila Morsy grew up in France and after university was a Teach for America teacher in under-resourced schools in Texas and New York City. She spent two years teaching middle-school writing at a public school in the Bronx and then was part of the founding team of a Harlem-based charter school where she taught middle-school reading. She is Academic Lead, Teaching and Learning in the Flinders University College of Medicine and Public Health. She is a Research Associate with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC.


  1. The longitudinal association of childhood school engagement with adult educational and occupational achievement: findings from an Australian national study
    Joan Abbott‐Chapman | Kara Martin | Nadia Ollington | Alison Venn | Terry Dwyer | Seana Gall

First published: 21 February 2013

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