Australia

Children of new migrants could face learning challenges if schools forced to close

As schools prepare for mass closures, some are considering how to best support students from non-English speaking homes. Source: Supplied

As a number of independent schools begin to shut their doors due to the coronavirus pandemic, concerns have been raised over the capacity for students from non-English speaking households to be taught at home.

Children from first-generation migrant and refugee families could face significant challenges if Australian schools are forced to close due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While many parents are preparing to teach their children at home when educational resources are moved online, multicultural groups are concerned about what this will mean for families that have recently arrived in Australia and speak languages other than English at home.

At St Patrick’s Primary School in the western Sydney suburb of Blacktown, where 74 per cent of students come from non-English speaking backgrounds, ensuring their diverse cohort have equal access to learning has been at the forefront of their preparations.

Principal Monica Fitzalan, Assistant Principal Thomas Crowley and students of St Patrick's Primary Blacktown.
Principal Monica Fitzalan, Assistant Principal Thomas Crowley and students of St Patrick's Primary School Blacktown.
Supplied

Principal Monica Fitzalan told SBS News the school was ready to move the syllabus online using Google Classroom when “inevitable” closures were introduced but added that this shift would be difficult for many families.

“Tasks need to be really explicit and self-explanatory, to cater for those parents for whom English is a second language,” she said. 

“A lot of our [students] speak English at school during the day, but when they go home their parents revert to a different language and that is when it’s challenging.”

Ms Fitzalan said teachers had been instructed to ensure the lessons they are planning to be delivered at home are in “parent-friendly language” and not full of “teacher jargon” so guardians, or other family members such as older siblings, could feel “confident” assisting the child.

“So much of this is about clarity … and making sure there are really open lines of communication with parents,” she said.

Teaching assistants who speak Afghan and Sudanese would continue to be available to students and staff would remain on-site and be available to support families, even if the school is shut down, she added.

Mechanisms are also in place for the school to provide hard-copy learning material to families if children do not have access to a computer or the internet at home.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously warned that if schools were to be shut down, the closure could last for six months or more. 

Mary Patetsos, the chairperson of Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA), also told SBS News that new migrants were less likely to have access to a technology network at home to allow for homeschooling, with refugee families particularly disadvantaged.

“One of the phenomena we know of is refugees, through the process of being a refugee, themselves have got a broken education and often have less education than others, so it’s really hard for them to take on a homeschooling role,” she said.

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“It’s also very difficult because they themselves are learning to speak English, so there’s a language difficulty there.”

A number of independent schools have already unilaterally announced they would be stopping face-to-face classes, in opposition to advice from Australia’s federal and state chief medical officers.

Presbyterian Ladies' College (PLC) in Sydney's northwest announced on Wednesday that they would be closing down due to the spread of COVID-19, with 44 per cent of students coming from non-English speaking backgrounds. 

The school, which costs $28,000 per year for students in Year 11 and 12, told SBS News families would be able to ask the teachers questions through online chatrooms. 

But while schools such as PLC and St Patrick’s have access to the latest technology, questions remain over what will happen to low-socioeconomic students if the shut down is extended to public schools.

According to the United Nation's educational arm, UNESCO, 107 countries have introduced nation-wide school closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, impacting approximately 860 million students. 

On Thursday, the United Kingdom became the latest country to introduce a country-wide shut down after their coronavirus death toll hit 100. 

But Mr Morrison has repeatedly dismissed calls to close down schools, reiterating this during a wide-ranging media conference on Wednesday in which he said keeping schools open was in the “national public interest”.

If schools were to shut, 30 per cent of the health care workforce would be lost, he told reporters, adding that a nation-wide closure would “put people’s lives at risk”.

Despite the firm words from the government, many teachers, parents and doctors have continued to call for students to be brought home as a necessary step to stem the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, including in an open letter signed by more than a thousand Australian doctors.

As of Thursday afternoon, 565 people had tested positive to coronavirus in Australia, including six people who have died.

Meanwhile, close to 215,000 cases have been reported worldwide. Of these, more than 8,700 have died and 83,300 have recovered.

In Australia, only people who have recently returned from travelling overseas or have been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case and experienced symptoms within 14 days are advised to be tested.

Coronavirus symptoms can range from mild illness to pneumonia, according to the Federal Government's website, and can include a fever, coughing, sore throat, fatigue and shortness of breath.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor, don’t visit, or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

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