Plea to reopen special schools amid ‘devastating’ loss of learning

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Disability advocates are pleading for specialist schools in Melbourne to be reopened, saying remote learning is “having devastating consequences” for many students and their carers.

Melanie Kent, who has two daughters with intellectual disabilities, fears multiple bouts of enforced remote learning are making it much tougher for them to develop the skills they require for employment after school.

Melanie Kent with her daughters Bianca and Isabella, both of whom attend specialist schools in Frankston. Credit:Penny Stephens

“I keep on telling the school, my aim is that once [daughter Bianca] gets to VCE level I want her to have a few options like TAFE or VCAL and I want her at a level where those options are open to her,” Ms Kent said. “But every time we have a lockdown and she stops learning, she falls further behind.”

Students in specialist schools were put at the front of the queue alongside VCE students when children made a staged return to face-to-face learning last year.

But they have not been given the same priority status in this lockdown, remaining in remote learning while year 11 and 12 students in Melbourne returned to face-to-face learning on Friday, as did regional students.

Bianca’s school, Naranga Special School, is closed this week for all but vulnerable students and those who cannot be supervised at home. It is running classes online. So too is Frankston Special Developmental School, where Bianca’s older sister Isabella, who has Down syndrome and a more severe intellectual disability, is a student.

Ms Kent says her daughters are doing so little real study while remote learning that “it’s pretty much a joke”.

“They [the schools] have got to do something because they are required to but it’s the bare minimum,” she said.

The girls also struggle to connect with their lessons via a computer screen.

Remote learning is “having devastating consequences” for many students with disabilities and with autism, advocates say. Two organisations – the Association for Children with a Disability and Amaze, Victoria’s peak body for people with autism – are pleading for an immediate return to on-site schooling for students at special schools.

“Over the last week, we are hearing of children becoming destructive and damaging things; children who are regressing, parents who cannot work, shop or care for others because of their child’s very high supervision needs; and families – often with multiple children or parents with disability – that are not coping,” Amaze chief executive Fiona Sharkie and Association for Children with a Disability chief executive Karen Dimmock said in a joint statement.

The associations also called for a “vaccine blitz” for teachers and staff in specialist schools, echoing a call last week from the Principals’ Association of Specialist Schools.

But the association’s president, Colac Specialist School principal Cameron Peverett, said it was important for specialist schools to stay closed in line with public health authorities’ directives.

“Nobody on staff in special schools would want to be the one to bring coronavirus into that school; we are talking about vulnerable students, sometimes medically vulnerable,” he said.

Acting Premier and Education Minister James Merlino acknowledged specialist schools had been given greater priority for reopening during some previous lockdowns, but said during some lockdowns they had remained shut.

“There was a period where our special schools were open fully and in previous circuit-breaker lockdowns we’ve had the settings that we have right now,” he said. “I want to get all students back as quickly as possible, that’s my focus as Education Minister and that’s going to be based on public health advice.”

There are about 29,000 students with disabilities in Victorian schools, including 12,600 in special schools, Department of Education data shows.

With Paul Sakkal

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