The impacts of social distancing and online learning on vulnerable students

two young girls on laptops studying

The impacts of social distancing and online learning on vulnerable students

It is critical that educators, parents, and governments alike consider the long-term impacts of social distancing and online learning on vulnerable students and their families. In the past 12 months the National Youth Commission Australia has held public hearings and focus groups in more than 20 locations across Australia, hearing from nearly 1,200 individuals and organisations. The clear messages are that young people should be part of decision-making processes and that governments should consult experts that are able to foresee the impacts of policies on young Australians.

The full extent of the impacts of the current restrictions now in place to reduce the impact of COVID-19 are potentially enormous: one school term of remote learning in the lives of vulnerable young people can mean a lifetime of implications.

Social Distancing and Online Learning

With social distancing measures continuing to be enforced, school students are switching to online learning. Curricula is being made available through online platforms, teachers are contactable via email and live streaming services, and parents are playing critical roles in facilitating course work. These measures are necessary if students are to continue their education while governments manage the spread of COVID-19. 

However, these new remote arrangements depend on the presumption that students can and will learn remotely and that their homes are productive and safe places to learn. Even though schools and governments have promised to loan laptops and mobile internet devices to students who need them, those who were already facing disadvantage at school are now at risk of far deeper, long-term inequality. 

Recognising the inequality present in Online Learning

In this new learning scenario, students from wealthy socioeconomic backgrounds are at a distinct advantage not just in terms of access to technology, but also other resources. Family homes may need to accommodate a number of students at varying year levels, each with their own specific study requirements.

Parents and carers will need to be proficient at using computers and laptops, and all houses throughout cities, towns and rural/remote areas will need a stable internet connection with an appropriate data plan. Critically, students will need the ability to adequately communicate their needs through written form via email.

This might be a problem for students whose numeracy and literacy levels are low, and for teachers unused to expressing more complex concepts and interpreting their students’ needs through written communication only.

It’s not just about having the tools, it’s the cultural and social context too

Access to social and cultural resources will also set people apart. The children of professional, educated parents fluent in English and familiar with Australian school systems will undoubtedly fare better than those from households experiencing some level of disadvantage.

Some examples of disadvantage include students living in foster care, those from cultural or linguistically diverse backgrounds for whom English is their second language, those with parents who have chronic mental and/or physical health issues, households facing inter-generational unemployment, a history of long-term homelessness, and students with parents whose education level doesn’t meet the basic needs of the curriculum.

Not all students attend mainstream schools, and there are differences in curricula across the board. Schools that offer re-engagement programs such as Flexible Learning Options (FLO) rely on face-to-face teaching, mentoring and communication. They provide support to young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds or young people living with trauma, many of whom struggle to engage with standardised education models and have a history of truancy.

Step one of these programs is attendance engagement or turning up to school on time. Step two is sustained wellbeing and school completion. Step two fundamentally requires connection with local support services.

Where some governments are permitting vulnerable young people to attend school if learning from home is a risk, they must be deemed vulnerable by government departments and able to prove their vulnerability in the form of a letter or advice from a service provider sent to the school. To reduce the distrust many of these young people have for institutionalised support systems, FLO teachers arrange meetings between service providers and students at school and over lunch, where sharing food and engaging informally softens the experience for students, teachers, and service providers. 

Preparing for the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on young people who require face-to-face support

How FLO schools manage to conduct programs via digital means will be a test for online learning models and FLO teachers alike, as it will for others who engage or teach applied settings. Communities of practice are essential to the wellbeing of vulnerable young people yet at the moment, they are unlawful due to COVID-19 restrictions. We need to be prepared for the impacts that social distancing has on those who require face-to-face support and whose main aim is to get up and show up to school. 

Apart from the obvious impacts on health and the economy, COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus some of the longstanding inequalities that exist within our society. Extra planning is needed to support and sustain the most vulnerable and those living on the margins of society. One way to address this is to include experts of all types and young people themselves in the national COVID-19 Commission, so that the voices of young Australians can be heard. 


  • Steve Bonnor
    May 2, 2020

    Well written article Pariece. It seems that Covid-19 is exposing and exacerbating inequality at many levels. I wonder instead of picking winners and losers, would a universal basic income help, to lessen the disadvantage and help to re-level the playing field. It seems that real capitalism has faltered at the hurdle of the GFC, and again now, so maybe it is time to stop pretending that it is still the saviour. Governments have shown that they can effectively print money with very few consequences, but it really has to go to every person to make a difference. Having money means that people can consume, and the notion that being poor is associated with someone’s ability will cease to persist. Poor people aren’t stupid, they just lack access to funds. Surely a country as egalitarian as Australia claims to be and with the resources of a continent could have a bloody good go at a UBI, and I think that something as radical as this may render under priveledge obsolete, or at least render the problem more manageable. The overall benefit to society and net happiness, would outweigh any perceived cost.

  • Pariece Nelligan
    May 13, 2020

    Hi Steve
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. In Australia the introduction of JobSeeker and JobKeeper is certainly a step in the right direction, however, many people are still missing out. It is not a surprise that casual staff, freelancers and arts workers are not benefitting from the government’s shift in policy. What has been highlighted though, is the ineffectiveness of a system that is built on compliance, regulation and punitive measures, which only ever lead deeper vulnerability and shame. Where unemployment is intergenerational so are the injuries that entail. A UBI may very well be one aspect of a larger solution to a systemic problem. Those that have presented at the public hearings in favour of a UBI mostly agree that a UBI would, as you say, level the playing field but the consensus is also that its implementation cannot be totally unconditional. More discussion about the introduction of a UBI and how it should be implemented is needed, and if you are willing and able, we encourage you to send in a written submission. You’ll find a link under the “Get Involved” tab on our webpage.

    August 19, 2020

    Thank you for sharing such valuable information. It will help a lot of people. Keep it up…

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.