The Flip Side to ‘Invalid’ School Absences and a Forgotten Student Cohort That Needs Attention

We read with interest the exclusive investigative piece published in today’s edition of The Sydney Morning Herald [‘Invalid’ school absences up 10%], and would welcome the opportunity for a more public discussion about a blind spot in the national conversation around chronic school absence.

On the flip side of so-called ‘invalid’ school absences, MissingSchool’s CEO and Co-Founder, Megan Gilmour, has concerns about a large cohort of students facing medical and mental illness, who are forgotten and isolated in what education systems consider to be “valid” absences.

Why? Simply because medical absences are authorised and deemed legitimate reasons for children to miss school even if they crave and emotionally benefit from ongoing connection to learning, classmates and teachers.

What’s clear is COVID-19 highlighted the significant impact that education gaps and lack of access to peers is having on the current generation of Australian children. And it taught us a vital lesson – that children can stay connected to their school communities to overcome negative impacts of isolation and trauma during a health crisis, as briefly witnessed when classes moved online during lockdowns.

MissingSchool continues to draw attention to this growing cohort of students who also miss school through no fault of their own.

It’s not insignificant. Up to 30% or ~1.2 million school-aged children across Australia may be facing medical or mental conditions serious enough to affect their attendance and education, with 14% having a mental disorder.

Post COVID-19, the number of students chronically absent is surging into the hundreds of thousands, exacerbated by the rise in chronic illnesses and a growing trend of school avoidance. Solutions are urgently needed.

We need to highlight the fact that a data blind spot exists whereby current coding of “authorised absence” by schools treats every health circumstance, from a common cold to cancer, the same way (conflating the data).

This coding typically suspends school support for students who want to be at school, but can’t – due to “documented” medical or mental illness and intermittent/continuous absence of months to years – while enrolment and related school funding continues.

When schools don’t link medical and mental health conditions to Disability Standards for Education-regulated learning supports – like assistive technology for classroom and curriculum access – students with compromised physical attendance suffer and their anxiety about returning to school compounds.

For all these reasons, in March 2022, Megan’s policy paper recommendation and advocacy to unlock a policy pathway for dedicated national “health condition” absence tracking in Australian schools was accepted by the federal government to address the gap in our national dataset.

MissingSchool is also addressing a gap in solutions as leaders in emphasising the essential role of technology during chronic absence. Schools, post-COVID, can turn “telepresence” back on and follow workplaces, universities, and VET sector into the 21st century by championing a “learn from anywhere” system for students who can’t physically attend. This change is not only necessary, it’s immediately achievable at scale. The technology for teachers to “teach once” is already in schools. Why aren’t we turning to technology as part of the solution to the current school attendance crisis? It’s time for technology to talk back.

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