Truancy and School Absences Doubled During the Pandemic

Truancy and school absences have doubled during the pandemic, tearing families apart and forcing parents to quit their jobs as children refuse to go back to school. Government data reveals attendance levels have dropped below 50 per cent for the first time, with educators and child welfare experts blaming the “generational rupture” on the chaos of Covid-19 lockdowns, gaming addictions, bullying and difficult schoolwork. Two million school students skipped more than 10 per cent of school lessons in 2022. Absences almost doubled during the pandemic, with half of all students from years 1 to 10 missing at least 10 per cent of school days during 2022 – a level that education departments regard as a risk to children’s education. In high schools, just 45.3 per cent of students from years 7 to 10 turned up to school at least 90 per cent of the time in 2022 – down from two-thirds of students in 2019, the last year before the pandemic.

Students learning from home during lockdowns, and engaging with teachers, were deemed to be attending school. The School Refusal Clinic in Melbourne, which is helping 500 families get their kids back to school, has warned politicians that entrenched truancy is driving parents to divorce. “School-refusal behaviour has a significant impact on parents and caregivers who may experience high conflict and resistance from their child the night before school, or in the morning,’’ it has told a Senate inquiry. “Parents may face workplace pressures, as they take time off work to stay home with their child, or they may even resign. In some cases, this can lead to marital tensions and even separation.’’ Official data from the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority reveals that school attendance rates have plunged since the start of the pandemic. Barely a quarter of First Nations students turned up to school at least 90% of the time in 2022, compared to half in 2019.

Among non-Indigenous students, attendance levels tanked from 74.8 per cent in 2019 to 41.5 per cent last year. Boys and girls were equally likely to miss school, as attendance levels plunged in every state and territory, regardless of the time spent in remote learning or lockdowns. ACARA does not measure attendance levels among senior students in years 11 and 12, when teenagers are legally allowed to leave school. Save the Children, a children’s charity, has warned of a “generational rupture’’ as kids shun a formal education. “The pandemic has disrupted children’s learning, weakened their connection to schools, placed severe pressure on their mental health and wellbeing, and significantly increased disengagement,’’ it told the inquiry. The Australian Secondary Principals’ Association warned of a rise in teenage truanting because of “alarming rates’’ of anxiety and mental-health issues.

And it revealed an “increase in inappropriate behaviours and suspensions’’ as students return to high school. “Mental-health issues have only increased, and young people were isolated from school-based counselling services or support during lockdown periods,’’ its submission states. “Schools are struggling to resource the interventions that are now required. “Some parents have found it too hard to get their children back to the routine of attending school every day so have looked for the homeschooling option.’’ The principals warn that “unrestricted use of technology’’, and “parents’ inability to address gaming addictions’’ is fuelling the problem. “Another issue is the increase in bullying via social media, which results in a student refusing to attend school out of fear of reprisal,’’ the submission states.

The Queensland Catholic Education Commission has revealed that some children are staying home to shield a parent from domestic violence. It also cites mental-health problems and gaming as reasons children refuse to attend school. “Significant differences between parents with respect to approaches and attitudes towards school refusal can result in conflict, especially as the issue becomes more ingrained,’’ its submission states. “Where the conflict includes domestic and family violence, it can be especially challenging for the young person to feel they can’t leave the family home to attend school for lengthy periods, thereby re-enforcing the school refusal behaviour. For some students, gaming represents an alternative activity to engage with during a school day.’’ The School Refusal Clinic’s director, mental-health social worker John Chellew, said he was working with children as young as five.

“It’s a cacophony of multiple issues and a very complex problem,’’ he said. “Sometimes it’s social, academic, gaming, bullying – the list goes on. “It’s the parents’ job to get kids to school, and the schools’ job to keep them at school and teach them.’’ Mr Chellew said that students who were in year 9 when the pandemic struck found themselves facing stressful VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education) exams when they returned to school last year. Students who were in year 5 at the start of the pandemic were faced with starting high school by the time they resumed school full-time. “A significant number of children missed a lot of school during Covid and have fallen behind in numeracy and literacy, so have lost confidence in their academic ability,’’ he said. Dr Glenn Melvin, a clinical psychologist from the School of Psychology at Deakin University, is working on strategies to help parents cope with school refusal.

He said there were “rational reasons’’ some students refused to attend, including bullying. “There’s still shame and embarrassment from parents that they can’t get their kid to school,’’ he said. “We need more resources to re-engage students who missed a lot of school. “We should be talking in terms of carrots, not sticks.’’ The Therapy Place, a specialist practice offering occupational therapy, speech therapy and dietetics for children struggling with everyday life skills and communication, has found that many children diagnosed with autism are struggling with the “sensory overload’’ of noisy classrooms after spending so much time at home.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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