Families fear students with disabilities are left behind in switch to remote learning

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Families fear students with disabilities are left behind in switch to remote learning

By Natassia Chrysanthos

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South-east Sydney mother Renae McNamara fears her son isn’t learning anything at the moment. The 11-year-old has two learning disabilities, which already place him four years behind his peers in spelling, writing and mathematics. He also has ADHD, which means he struggles to start tasks and needs constant guidance to maintain focus.

Now he is at risk of falling even further behind, as the supports he usually receives at school have slipped away during the switch to remote learning. As a single mother and respiratory physiotherapist at a hospital, Ms McNamara must send her son to school. But instead of receiving his usual tailored support, she says he comes home having played video games and listened to music all day.

Renae McNamara with her son at their south-east Sydney home.

Renae McNamara with her son at their south-east Sydney home.Credit:Louise Kennerley

“He is now being left sitting in a classroom with ADHD and with no teaching taking place, and he is expected to work independently at a computer all day. This is a child who should be working one-on-one with a specialised teacher,” Ms McNamara said.

“Vulnerable children, many whom have to attend school due to their parents or carers being essential workers, are being denied the education and teaching they require, and left sitting rotting in classrooms or at home where no teacher is teaching nor checking on their progress.”

Other parents of children with disabilities share Ms McNamara’s concerns, said chief executive of Children and Young People with Disability Australia, Mary Sayers. “We learned last year that students with disabilities were left behind in their education, and what we have heard this year is things aren’t much better,” she said.

“There’s a lack of clarity in information, particularly for students who require adjustments that are normally provided by the school.”

Those adjustments could include amending the curriculum to make sure it is accessible, modifying technology used in the classroom for a student’s needs, or tailored support from a specialised teacher.

“[Those] types of support provided should be the same but delivered innovatively – by phone, Microsoft Teams or online; having multiple check-ins throughout the day. But that just drops away. We hear that responsibility moves from the school to the families,” Ms Sayers said

Ms McNamara’s son has been receiving catch-up tutoring to help compensate after last year’s period of remote learning. “But now the exact same thing is happening again. It just does my head in. We’re forever behind; we’re never going to catch up,” she said.

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“What is the NSW Department of Education going to do when students with learning disabilities who are already behind in their knowledge and abilities, who then fell further behind during the 2020 COVID lockdown ... [fall] even further behind their grade level?”

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A spokesman for the department said there were online resources for teachers to adjust their activities and materials to meet the needs of students with disability during remote learning.

“We recognise shifting to learning from home has been hard for many students and their families, including students who have a disability. Schools are working on their learning from home processes in partnership with their parents,” he said.

“If parents are concerned with how learning from home is working for their child they need to talk to their teacher and school. There are options and opportunities to change the delivery to suit a child learning with a disability. But it requires a conversation between parents and schools.”

He said student learning support officers were still available to help students with disabilities, under the instruction of classroom teachers. “This can include making adjustments to learning activities, offering support by telephone or email or supporting teachers [who are] using online platforms,” he said.

Ms Sayers said those efforts were positive but were not being reported by families across the board. “I’m sure there are some that are doing very well, but we hear of the stories where it goes wrong. We would go as far to say that not much has changed [since last year].”

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