girl sitting with red backpack

Areas of Victoria are once more under Stage 3, ‘Stay at Home’, coronavirus restrictions and many students with disability are once more having to adapt to changes in their education.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has announced changes to the previous ‘remote and distance learning’ directive implemented in Term 2 so that students with disability will be better supported during Term 3 and the current restrictions.

Students with disability or special needs who attend mainstream schools in Victoria will have the option to attend school in person and learn under the supervision of teaching staff and education support staff.

This will apply to students in all year levels, regardless of whether they fall under Program for Students with Disabilities (PSD) funding.

Students attending special schools will also be able to attend school from today.

Autism peak body Amaze, and the Association for Children with a Disability (ACD) have welcomed the new measures announced by Premier Andrews as they say the arrangements consider the needs of students.

Fiona Sharkie, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Amaze, which provides support for autistic people and their families, says, “We commend the Victorian Government for listening to students with disabilities and their families about the significant challenges they faced in Term 2.”

Ms Sharkie says that COVID-19 has magnified pre-existing issues in education and that students with disability and their families have been disproportionately impacted.

Karen Dimmock, CEO of ACD, says that access to appropriate support was critical. “For parents of students with disability who choose not to return to school, it is vital that they are well-supported to learn from home. For those with National Disability Insurance Scheme plans, accessing in home support can make a real difference.”

“It is important that all students with disability and special needs, regardless of whether learning at school or from home, have access to a tailored curriculum and personalised support. It is also critical that Individual Learning Plans be updated to reflect the current context and that Student Support Groups continue to meet,” added Ms Dimmock.

However, People With Disability Australia (PWDA) have raised concerns in a statement saying “We are also concerned to hear that children and young people with disability are being asked to return to school, when non-disabled students are being encouraged to learn from home.

“This is not acceptable, and we are extremely concerned that this approach treats children and young people with disability differently and will put them in greater danger, especially when many are already at high risk of getting COVID-19. Students with disability must be able to access appropriate education supports to ensure they can stay safe and learn from home, along with other non-disabled students.”

Challenges faced by students with autism during COVID-19

With the first outbreak of COVID-19, a sudden transition was made for many students with autism and disability to online learning, which peak body Amaze says was not adapted to their needs.

The transition to online learning was rushed due to the initial outbreak of COVID-19 which Fiona Sharkie, Chief Executive Officer at Amaze, says meant that students with autism had to manage sudden changes to their routines and additional challenges.

“One of the biggest challenges for autistic students, or autistic people generally, is that routine is very important to them so any sudden changes to their usual routines like the way they go to school, what teachers they would have, are going to be challenging for them.

“We had some parents reporting to us that their child would say to them ‘you’re not my teacher, I don’t learn from you. You’re my mother or you're my parent’.

“[While] other children also found it very difficult to go into technology-based learning from home.”

Ms Sharkie says that the online curriculums for many schools were not adapted for the needs of the students as they would be in a school environment.

“In a school environment, the curriculum should be adapted and adjusted to the learning needs of students with disability. But [during COVID-19], remote learning from home was just general.

“During any time, students with added needs [require] additional support. When they don’t receive that added support, they’ll disengage or not do the work or not be able to do the work, and then their education falls behind.”

When looking at the experiences of COVID-19 for students with autism, Ms Sharkie says “Unfortunately for our students there wasn’t a lot of good. There was a little bit of reporting back from older students, in secondary schools, that they could learn at their own pace, that they could complete their work and then do what they wanted to do, but we didn’t hear a lot of that.

“We heard much more from parents of primary school-aged children who were facing difficulties.”

With the current lockdown in Victoria and the option to attend school in person available to students with disability, Ms Sharkie says the Victorian Government has listened to the needs of students with disability.

“[They’ve] realised that the needs of students with disability are disproportionate to students without disability or additional needs.

“We’ve had comments from our community that this is the first Premier that’s even mentioned students with disability and I think that’s true. I haven’t seen other better practices in other states.”