‘Like a hurricane’: Plea for fair go for students hit hardest by virus

COVID-19 has swept through Linda Maxwell’s school “like a hurricane”, shutting it down not once but three times since April.

The large state school in Melbourne’s north-west has lost 15 days of learning since April due to unplanned closures due to a case of the virus.

Year 12 student Olivia De Lesantis, one of the VCE class of 2020 whose ATAR will be adjusted for the impact of COVID-19 and remote learning.Credit:Justin McManus

“We haven’t had any more than a three-week run since this started,” the principal of Keilor Downs Secondary College said.

Since the first closure she has seen her year 12 students’ results on their coursework dive compared with term one.

“If you were the top kid in biology, you’re still the top kid in biology, but we are talking about 10, 15, 20 per cent drops,” Ms Maxwell said.

Many schools in Melbourne’s east or in the regions have taken the opportunity to bring VCE students on-site for school-assessed coursework this month, after the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority gave permission to do so.

But Ms Maxwell says this is not a safe option while the virus is still so active in the city of Brimbank. School families are still emailing regularly to report an infection.

With exams approaching in November, time has run out for the school's VCE students to catch up on lost learning, she said.

“We’ll do the best that we can but I think we face an inevitability that there is going to be a loss of performance.”

As schools prepare for the monumental task of individually assessing every one of the state’s 50,000 VCE students for special consideration of disadvantage due to COVID-19, Ms Maxwell hopes education authorities can find a way to compenate her students fairly for what the pandemic has taken from them.

The Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre, which calculates students’ ATARs, briefed careers practitioners last week on how to rate how significantly each student has been affected by remote learning.

School closures due to COVID-19 are not to be factored in, the authority said.

“School closures will be managed directly by VTAC on a school-by-school basis,” the briefing states. “Do not include school closures in your impact rating.”

Rather, students who had no internet access or online device for most of their remote learning, or who endured “constant noise” in their study environment, will get the largest boost to their results this year, on a sliding scale of special consideration.

At the bottom, or “baseline” end, is a series of factors such as “too much screen time” or “social disconnection”.

These will not warrant special consideration, as they have been assessed by VTAC as having affected all students in the state.

Students will also be expected to declare to their teachers how badly their studies were affected due to their personal circumstances, including family violence, although one school leader warned this information might be difficult to acquire.

“In a class of 25 a teacher will have a pretty good idea of what’s happened with each student but they won’t know everything because sometimes students don’t want to tell them everything,” Victorian Association of State School Principals president Sue Bell told a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday.

Year 12 student Olivia De Lesantis said she wasn't sure the special consideration would satisfy the "wide variety of students that are going through such a turbulent year".

Year 12 student Olivia De Lesantis says not all students were affected equally by disrupted learning.Credit:Justin McManus

Olivia said she had been fortunate because her school, Santa Maria College in Northcote, had not been forced to close due to a COVID-19 case.

"The issue of privilege filters into it," she said.

"We were lucky in that everyone was fine until stage 4 and we were forced to close.

"We are in a strong position but there are people who aren't as fortunate … who need that extra support."

Former VCE examinations manager Peter Adams said Victorians could "only hope that the processes devised at this time prove to be both just and reliable for approximately 50,000 VCE students".

"In particular, I hope that those students who every year achieve beyond expectations, given their circumstances, will in 2020 be recognised through these adjustments as resilient and will be able to demonstrate their true grit and ability," he said.

Veteran principal Michael Fawcett, of Homestead Senior Secondary College, said consideration of educational disadvantage was typically applied to a tiny minority of year 12 students and he was not convinced the process could be objectively applied to all of them.

"Specific guidelines as to how schools apply consideration of educational disadvantage must go out to all schools in all systems ASAP," he said.

Mr Fawcett said this would not only give schools peace of mind, but help ensure all sectors – government, independent and Catholic – apply the process "equitably and objectively".

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