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23 Oct 2021 12:12
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  •   Home > News > International

    Coronavirus had a profound impact on children's education. Here's how one London school plans to catch them up

    For children living through a global crisis, separated from friends and trying to learn over the internet, the past 18 months have had a profound effect on their wellbeing.  Now they must try to make up for lost time.

    Errol Comrie is determined the pandemic will not stop any of his students from sitting exams and "getting a chance in life," but it all relies on them passing another test they cannot study for.

    In the United Kingdom, all senior students are required to clear two COVID-19 tests a week if they want to come to class in person. 

    But it is a small price to pay to keep the school open, Mr Comrie, the head teacher at London's City Heights Academy, told the ABC.

    "We need our kids in school," he said. 

    "It's fine to say 'educate them at home', but for some of our kids they just don't have the space for that."

    More than half of the student body at City Heights Academy rely on free school meals.

    "Last year we were busy just figuring out how to get food to our families who needed it," Mr Comrie said.

    "We're very closely attached to the community and the impact COVID had on homes around here was big.

    "[There was] a lack of jobs, people got sick, the space some of the young people had to do work from was really difficult."

    After months of turmoil, Mr Comrie feared some of his students could see their futures permanently altered by the pandemic. 

    He and his colleagues were not going to let that happen without a fight. 

    The learning lost to a global crisis 

    The boroughs around City Heights Academy had some of the highest levels of COVID-19 infection in the capital. 

    The south London school needs to manage outbreaks to make sure their doors stay open, so they are keeping year-groups in "bubbles" to minimise spread, and some students are choosing to wear masks.

    They also transformed their sports hall into a mass testing hub on the first day of term to show students how to do the tests properly.

    They are now expected to do the tests themselves at home.

    "It feels normal really and I'm feeling safe because everyone has tested negative," 15-year-old Cecilia Santos said about the new routine she now follows. 

    "It is just great to be able to socialise with friends and teachers again.

    "I just really prefer physical learning."

    After multiple school closures throughout 2020 and 2021, government reports estimate that the disruptions left many students months behind and it was disadvantaged students who missed the most.

    A report prepared for the British Department of Education found that by the end of 2020, disadvantaged high school students in England had missed out on about 3.7 months of learning, while affluent pupils were on track.

    Primary school aged children from disadvantaged backgrounds were three months behind where they should be, whereas children from wealthier families were only two weeks behind.

    "The young people that we serve, sitting exams is probably the most important part of their lives because it changes their life chances," Mr Comrie said.

    "It gives them a fair chance in life. We saw how badly affected our families were financially and with their health during this pandemic."

    COVID-19 could further entrench inequity for a generation

    Natalie Perera, who heads the organisation that conducted the analysis of school data for the government report, said the pandemic was having a huge impact on education equality for students.

    While the education gap between rich and poor students existed long before the pandemic, the disruptions to school could further entrench these problems, Ms Perera, who is the chief executive of the Education Policy Institute, told the ABC.

    "By the age of 16, disadvantaged children were over a year-and-a-half behind their more affluent peers and that gap had stopped closing before the pandemic," she said.

    "Now we've seen during the pandemic they've fallen even further behind."

    Studies out of the United States and Australia paint a similar picture.

    Children from affluent families fared better by having better digital connectivity, study spaces and support from parents.

    Teachers, schools and parents are working to give the students their best start in life and overcome the challenges posed by coronavirus, Ms Perera said.

    "They have done so much already to manage COVID, to deliver the curriculum," she said.

    Teachers fight for their students 

    City Heights Academy has a big plan to tackle the task ahead, confident they can manage COVID-19 and make up for lost time.

    "We will overcome COVID, we have to," Mr Comrie said.

    "We've got booster packs, we've got homework resources, we've got teachers that have adapted the curriculum.

    "If we've identified any gaps in the kids learning than that recovery curriculum is in place to solve that problem."

    There is another reason he is determined to keep the school open: It is a "safe place" for many students.

    Cecilia Santos is a bright student with aspirations of attending university, but even she found elements of home learning difficult.

    "We kind of become isolated from everyone and so we don't go out as much, we don't socialise, we kind of lose the ability," she said.

    "It's harder to reach out to teachers because it's all done over email.

    "It just feels so good to be back."

    Research shows mental health and the wellbeing of young people has been deeply affected, and it needs to be considered by governments as they plan for an "education recovery", according to Ms Perera. 

    "It needs to be funded [by government] but we also need a society and whole of country focus on fixing these inequities," she said. 

    "We've seen governments in the United States and the Netherlands really invest in the education recovery – this is what's needed to stop further inequity." 

    Mr Comrie said it was a personal mission for him to keep the children safe.

    "Education is power," he said.

    "It's social mobility, and I've seen the way it changes lives."

    [Click through to send us your questions about COVID-19]

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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