Thousands of kids have been missing school far longer than COVID-19

We’re failing thousands of kids with chronic illness who have been missing school far longer than COVID-19

We can’t afford to ‘wait until they are well’.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the entire planet to see education in a whole new light. Being able to physically attend school and see friends on a regular basis is no longer a certainty for anyone, as lockdown rules and social distancing requirements make the very idea of in-person schooling a stressful and even risky prospect. 

But for an untold number of children around Australia, social isolation has been a reality for far longer than the length of the pandemic. These children do not even have the option of attending school due to serious long-term illness. 

In Australia, there is no official statistic for the number of children who are chronically absent due to serious illness or injury or their cumulative absences, but estimates put the figure into multiple tens of thousands. No one is counting and these children are largely unseen by their schools. 

The unknown number now includes siblings of ill children who also need to stay home, and children who have immunocompromised parents (e.g. undergoing cancer treatment) who also are staying home from school. For these children, who have been isolated at home and in hospital long before COVID-19, the disconnection from their peers and learning is devastating. 

Once a child is granted an ‘authorised absence’, school support is automatically suspended. These students are essentially treated the same as a child with a common cold, and they end up in a policy wilderness unable to attain equity and inclusion in their education on the same basis as others. Australia has legislative provisions through the Disability Standards for Education. And now we urgently need a national policy framework with guidelines and standard operating procedures for keeping kids with serious illness connected to their own schools. 

We can’t afford to ‘wait until they are well’. Taxpayer investments in healthcare and education for these children—that continue when they are absent from school—fail to yield equivalent personal, social and public returns if these kids aren’t given the opportunity to reach their potential. 

Without counting the costs of medical intervention and any ongoing medical care, early school leaving carries estimated lifetime costs in lost productivity close to $1 million per individual. Human systems and social costs are high.

Unsurprisingly, it’s parents who find themselves carrying the burden for their child’s learning and loneliness. Too often the student’s education is left to charity or chance, or they are segregated to distance education. Some students may access hospital schooling, but this too lacks what is vital: continuous connection with their peers, teachers, curriculum, and community.

As schools around some parts of the country have opened, these children are facing another blow: a renewed lack of equity. Schools are retreating from the support and technology provided when students were homebound during the wider health crisis, so the reopening of schools means sick children are once again losing out. While I am thrilled to see kids back in the classroom, and mums and dads relieved of playing teacher, it’s also a sad reminder that for lots of families, this is just not a possibility. We can do better.

I co-founded advocacy group MissingSchool in 2012 after my son faced a two-year medical isolation. My organisation has since engaged in several audits of Australian law, policy, standards, and guidelines. 

These audits conclude that sick kids across Australia are educationally disadvantaged by critical gaps in governance, an absence of formal education and health agreements and lack of specialised support between school, medical settings and home. 

This explains why schools find supporting students beyond the school gates a significant challenge, and hospitals don’t see education as their role. Without clear policy, standards and practice guidelines, support for these students across all locations is impossible. 

The good news is we don’t have to leave our sick kids behind. With new school support systems and technologies in place, we can connect sick kids in Australia back to class. Since 2017, I have seen the difference inclusion can make to sick children through MissingSchool’s Australian-first initiative: telepresence robots placed in the classrooms of sick kids. These robots are an assistive device that lets them dial-in to class from the hospital or home, see and hear their teachers and classmates, be seen and heard, and take their lessons in real-time. 

The robot’s ‘human’ characteristics cultivate greater social attachment as students participate in their social experiences. Critically, students have the ‘space’ and capability to move their robot around both the classroom and the playground from their remote location. 

Once the telepresence robot is in the classroom, students find greater support from their schools, because they’re no longer absent. Parents and teachers report that having the student present through their robot supports student friendships, eases anxiety, increases learning participation, and creates school capacity to support students’ transitions between places of care. 

Three years on, an estimated 3,140 classmates have been reconnected as over a hundred students have used telepresence robots, 310 teachers have been trained in their use, 1,040 teachers have been observers, and positive expectation continues to build. Just like access ramps, robots can give our kids an unmistakable presence in their schools.

It’s time to recognise that up to 1,185,000 Australian students face missing school as a result of a serious illness and show them that they too deserve connection, inclusion, and an equal chance at an education. It’s not just their future, but the future of our country that depends on it. 

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