Listen to the audio version of this story:
As we figure out what ‘COVID-normal’ looks like in Victoria, a lot of students are wondering what education will be like in the future. For disabled students, the pandemic has proven that accessible online classrooms are not as impossible as they were previously made out to be.
Mac is a disabled young person who studied via remote learning before the pandemic, and then experienced a big shift during the 2020 lockdowns. Let’s hear his reflections on what we need to learn from the pandemic about making education more accessible.
“My name is Mac, I use he/him pronouns and I'm on the land of the Boon Wurrung/Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation. During the peak of lockdown, I was doing year 11. I'm currently doing year 12 part time at an alternative form of education. So I had a lot of experience with this new online world that we discovered last year.”
Prior to the pandemic, Mac attended a private school. But at one point, in-person schooling became inaccessible. He switched to ‘home learning’, where he was sent materials to work through at home by himself. He was largely left to his own devices.
“Pre-COVID, I had a pretty atypical education experience. For a whole year in year 10, I went to school maybe an hour a day at max; my mental health and my health wasn't very good.
“My teachers would occasionally send me my PowerPoints and send me the class notes - but obviously, they were made [for] in person. So trying to do that on your own was very, very difficult. I attempted to go in person, for however long I could manage. But that wasn't what was the 'normal', most people were going in person - I just couldn't do that.”
In contrast to this ‘home learning’ on his own, the ‘online learning’ during lockdown created a classroom experience online.
“During COVID, I really enjoyed the fact that I was able to attend classes. I still got to experience that classroom environment and have contact hours with my teacher, which was probably quadruple the time that I was used to! So for me, lockdown and online school was kind of a step up towards what I had normally, compared to most kids where it was a step down. So I found it really, really beneficial.”
Managing accessibility at home
The difference in quality of education between home learning and online learning that Mac describes is so important for disabled young people. The rigid in-person structure in the ‘old normal’ was not accessible. Mac shares what makes his home a better learning environment.
“For me, being at home in my room, my room is created for me, and so therefore it is a very accessible space. I have control over the lights, I have control over the noise, I have control of my space in all aspects. Whereas in person you don't.
“So simple things for me, such as sitting on my bed to do my classes with my legs straight, so my legs don't hurt as much, or sitting on my chair, so I can swing to help me concentrate. All of those things kind of made online learning a lot more accessible and inclusive. So it was just able to have that control over where you are, and how you learn.
“As well as doing online learning, you got given a lot more breaks, compared to in person. So we had a lot more freedom and control of how much work we do, we could pace ourselves to our standards. Being online, you could simply just turn off your camera and your microphone, but you could still hear the class, but you could just take some time for yourself. If you needed to take time for yourself at school in person, you'd have to leave the room.”
What can be done to make education accessible?
Accessible education is not only about being in control of your environment, it’s also about how teachers adapt. For Mac, online learning in lockdown was the first time the work and assessments were truly appropriate for doing at home. It was also the first time he had the same teacher contact time as his classmates. Previously, Mac had to meet all his own access needs and be his own teacher, but online classes supported him to focus on learning.
“The stress of having to be my own teacher decreased like crazy. So home learning, it was all me. Like, if I had a question, I could email my teacher, but the chances of getting a reply back while doing the worksheet wasn't realistic, like most people in person would get.
“So if I had questions, I'd look it up online, I'd have to message my teachers every day for, ‘hey, what did we do today? What were the PowerPoints, what were the notes?’ And the information I'd get was nowhere near the same amount as I would've gotten in person. The quality of my education wasn't as much there, and all of that stress was put on me.
“Whereas online learning - I didn't have to worry about getting the PowerPoints, they were there. The notes were there, the worksheets were there. But the worksheets were there in a way that were accessible to do at home, I didn't have to try and convert it to whatever would work for me in my situation.
“As well as being able to sit tests and SACs. Pre-COVID with home learning, I would come in person to sit a SAC, but their timeline wouldn't match up with a lot of the other kids. So I often would be sitting a SAC two weeks after all the other students had started a whole new topic. Whereas with online learning, I was sitting the SACs at the same time as all my peers. So I wasn't playing catch up, which is probably the best way to explain my home learning pre-COVID: it was catch up, I was always a week or two behind, so online learning was kind of equalising it. And it was just a whole lot more accessible for me.”
Partway through lockdown in 2020, Mac changed from his mainstream private high school to a TAFE. That gave him another version of online learning, as his teachers worked to adapt the hands-on activities for different student needs.
“I now go to a TAFE instead of a traditional high school. So obviously, that is a very, very different environment and experiences, which is much more suitable for me, my health and just my personality.
“When I moved to my new school, my teachers did a pretty good job with that transition. So my biology teacher, just before lockdown started, we got given like this huge pamphlet of stuff. With TAFE being a lower socio-economic area, most of the kids couldn't access a printer. So all of those worksheets that involved paper were given in a little booklet, we had coloured paper. We were learning about chromosomes, we had like icy pole sticks to replicate that. So all of those ‘Prac’ is short for ‘practical work’ in a science class. It’s another name for activities you do in a science lab.pracs that we did, we had all those materials given to us before lockdown.
“So then during class, we would talk over how to do the prac, and then we'd go off and do it by ourselves. So we still did get those prac classes. And I'm a very hands-on visual learner, so it was great for me. It was a little bit more arts and crafts pracs, because obviously they couldn't give kids chemicals to go have fun with at home! But at the same time, I was very grateful for what we had.”
What should COVID-normal look like?
“So now into COVID-normal, I kind of miss online classes; like it was quite nice having those options. And it was a bit of a pity not to see that option get transferred into our COVID-normal. Like we were all kind of hoping that there would be some way to continue it, as it was so beneficial to so many people.
“But it was really nice to be able to meet all of my peers. So I went six months at a brand new school during lockdown, and the only way I knew who my peers names were was their name and a black screen. I might be lucky if they said yes for attendance. So it was kind of isolating, I felt like I was just getting one-on-one sessions with my tutor, even though it was actually my teacher and I was in the classroom filled with 25 people. So being able to go back in person, I was actually able to socialise and make some friends and actually feel like I was going to that school, which was really, really nice.”
Disabled students have been advocating for better access to education for a long time. In the ‘old normal’, it was not accessible enough. Mac’s varied experiences show how multiple options for equitable education are possible. It can look like:
- Having materials adapted for doing at home
- Regular contact with teachers in different formats
- The time to go at your own pace and standards
- Studying in a way that suits you and how you’re feeling day-to-day
- The option to attend in-person for some aspects like pracs and socialising, but not making it compulsory
When we imagine the new COVID-normal, it has to be about taking the best lockdown adaptions forward.