Covid-19 lockdowns saw some teens skip school permanently. A program brings them back

It’s the kids who did not come back.

The often vulnerable students who suffered more than most from losing the similarity in the classroom.

Instead of sleeping in and frustrating internet speeds, no face-to-face learning meant navigating violence or homelessness.

Some lost. Young and marginalized, their stories have been largely untold.

Zoey was one of them – and she’s ready to tell her.

Back from the edge

At the height of the 2020 lockdown, 13-year-old Zoey, from Kellyville in the northwestern part of Sydney, spent her days lying in the lounge at home in despair.

She was withdrawn. She did not talk to anyone.

zoe with books
Zoey stopped talking to people and getting involved in school work. (ABC News: Niall Lenihan)

While Zoey’s classmates continued teaching and enjoyed social support to soothe the uncertain times, she had dropped out of class and hardly anyone noticed.

After a traumatic personal experience, Zoey and her mother, Jess, were also homeless.

But worse was to come.

Zoey was diagnosed with depression.

“She had changed, there was something in her that was broken,” her mother said.

“It was hard. I did not know what services were out there.”

A middle-aged woman in a residential area.
Zoey’s mother, Jess, says her daughter had been withdrawn. (ABC News: Niall Lenihan)

To Zoey, the outside world seemed gloomy and meaningless.

Zoey’s education – and the transformative power that came with it – was in jeopardy.

And she was not alone.

‘Falling through the cracks’

Lockdowns have made it harder to get accurate data on how many students lost connection to the school and never came back.

But exclusive analysis provided to ABC from Mission Australia suggests the number may be significant.

The mission’s annual youth survey shows that 2020 was the first year in almost a decade in which young people aged 15 to 19 who go to school or education fell below the 90 per cent limit and fell from 93.3 per cent in 2019 to 86, 6 percent last year.

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge and leaders in the education sector were concerned about the preliminary NAPLAN results, which showed that most students did well with distance learning, which actually masked the children who did not return.

“I am certainly concerned about students in my home state of Victoria, where many children have not had an uninterrupted school period since 2019,” Minister Tudge told ABC.

“I’ve heard several reports of children falling through the cracks, and we need to do everything we can to keep them connected to school so they don’t drop out early.”

Make a difference

This year, despite continued closures in New South Wales, Zoey returned to school and stayed there.

It was thanks to a new program run by Youth Off the Streets at its Eden College in Sydney’s Macquarie Fields, about 40 miles southwest of the CBD.

Schooling via Off-campus learning for vulnerable students [SOLAR] the program shows that so-called “school walls” can be lured back to the classroom with the right support.

It was created during the height of 2020 lockdowns.

Ironically, the same learning model that broke the connection to school offered many students a bridge back to the classroom.

Head teacher Amy Gill said she noticed that many previously uninvolved students actually preferred distance learning.

A teacher looks at a student.
Amy Gill has worked countless hours and weekends to build the infrastructure for the school.(ABC News: Niall Lenihan)

“There were some young people, especially those with social anxiety, [who] experienced trauma in school or were long-term school refusers who really thrived in that distance learning environment, “Ms. Gill said.

During the program, students complete two days of distance learning and three days of school each week.

They also receive personalized curricula.

“We focus a lot on belonging and making children feel safe,” Ms. Gill said.

“It’s not asking students to adapt to the way we work – we adapt to the way they work.”

The biggest indicator of success has been a sharp increase in school attendance, with students who missed many years of learning now having 70 to 80 percent attendance.

“I have students [who] have not been to school for two years in the SOLAR program, “Ms Gill said.

‘School refusers’ for school lovers

For many years, prank teens and their parents were dealt with through harsh fines, school penalties and visits from public authorities.

Advocates and educators say that with the impact of the pandemic still unknown, the time for change is now.

With a shift in understanding, there has also been a shift in language, with many schools now referring to these teenagers as “schoolgirls”.

The program gives hope to schools around the country who fear that they have lost some students forever after months of distance learning.

“What I want to say to other schools is that there is a solution to school refusal: It’s about changing priorities,” Amy Gill said.

A young woman with a teacher, both wearing masks, in a school environment.
Zoey has a newfound passion for the school after enrolling in the program.(ABC News: Niall Lenihan)

For Zoey, an improvement in her schooling has led to a happier and richer life.

She has cultivated an interest in art and Japanese manga comics and is also writing a book.

The teenager is now so dedicated to her studies that she takes three trains and a bus to get to the Macquarie Hills campus.

Her mother could not be more proud.

“She’s excited, she’s getting up. She’s getting herself into a routine,” Jess said.

“She’s finally coming back from the shell she’d retired to.”


Give a Comment