MELBOURNE – As with many countries around the world, the coronavirus pandemic upended the Australian education system, at least temporarily.
Children across the country have been learning from home, doing online lessons with the hope of soon returning back to normal. But students whose parents are essential workers or others who cannot safely stay home are allowed to physically go to school, doing the same lessons.
The system changed this week in some states, with some students beginning a staggered return to face-to-face learning.
The state of Victoria, which includes Melbourne, is not one of them.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced that on May 26th, students in Prep, Grade 1 and 2 and Year 11 and 12 will return to school. Students in years three to 10 will return to face to face learning two weeks later.
This means that for at least another few weeks, Victorian teachers will have more work cut out for them then they would normally have before the pandemic. Many teachers, including those who only work a few days a week, are spending a lot more time doing tasks such as filming lesson instructions and correcting work that may take days to be submitted by students.
“I have been at this computer for an eternity,” said Bernice Gommers, a part-time prep teacher at St. Richard’s Primary School in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. “It started in the holidays just getting my head around being prepared. Now we are in Term 2 and trying to teach online it seems I am always on the computer doing something.”
With the massive changes to the way she works now that classes have moved online, Gommers said she doesn’t think she’s ever worked so hard in her life.
Gommers did not find the transition to teaching online easy.
“Being one of the older teachers and not having a great digital technology background it is an extremely steep learning curve of which I have fallen off many a time,” Gommers said. “Download, upload, implode explode, where did that document go?, why does that link not work?, etc. …”
Phil Box, who teaches physical education and math at Aquinas College in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, didn’t find the transition to online teaching easy, either.
“I thought, I have been teaching for nearly 30 years the same kind of way and now I’m doing it from a room in my house!”
For Box, the biggest challenge with teaching online is trying to get a message across in written form.
“You feel you have explained something pretty clearly and then 3 emails come back of students that are unsure,” said Box. “It is not unusual for me to get over 200 emails a day in the early stages of online learning.”
Nevenka Elvin, a part-time physical education and classroom teacher, also found that the transition to online learning was hard.
“Within the space of two weeks, my brain has gone into overload, having to learn so many new things in a short space of time,” Elvin said. “From Google Meets to attaching links and then Screencastify to creating Google Slides, it has one massive learning curve.”
When schools announced that they would move to online learning, Elvin said it felt quite daunting – especially teaching physical education to young students.
“From my perspective I had to consider managing three different roles remotely. The most challenging being physical education in which many demonstrations especially for the younger students are done in person.”
Technology has also been her biggest challenge during the online learning process, Elvin said, and trying to think of different ways to deliver classes with success.
Alongside digital technology, one of her biggest challenges about online learning has been worrying about her students and the effects of this change has had on her young students.
“I miss the kids so much,” said Gommers. “I am panicking about what they are missing. I am worried about catching them up when we finally do get back.”
The move to online learning was not ideal, Box said, but he said it “was an opportunity to gain some positives, like learning some new skills and creative ways to do things.”
Box said he’s enjoyed the fact that there is far less travel time to and from work now and “lots of different problem solving.”
Elvin found a silver lining, too.
“I have found that there is a lot more collaborative learning among the staff which is a definite positive,” she said.
Despite the struggles, Gommers said there are some things she has enjoyed about online learning with her students, who are all about five or six years old.
“Getting emails and photos from the parents and kids. Hearing positive feedback from parents that we are trying our best in a bad situation.”
Alyce Collett is a Correspondent with Youth Journalism International.