The Pandemic is Not Over – What this Means for Education Providers

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over.

Two years ago – 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. As of Monday, 14 March 2022, there were 26,063 new COVID-19 cases in Australia, a widely accepted understatement, due to lower testing rates indicated by a high 19.23% positive testing rate. This included 8,911 in New South Wales, 5,499 in Victoria, 3,797 in Queensland, 2,099 in South Australia, 599 in the ACT, 923 in Tasmania, 4,037 in Western Australia and 198 in the Northern Territory. Hospitalisations rose that day by 40 in New South Wales to 1,005 (and another 27 to 1,032 on 15 March), of a national total of more than 1,750. And 21 more deaths were reported on 15 March, bringing the pandemic total to more than 5,600. It’s not going away, any time soon.

The good news is that Australian vaccination rates are the tenth highest in the world, and the fourth highest amongst larger population countries, behind only Chile, Italy and South Korea – we are also just behind New Zealand, although the small population there makes a vaccination roll-out easier. This achievement positions Australia relatively well to face future COVID-19 waves – and assuredly they will come. Some jurisdictions (notably the ACT and Tasmania) are close to 100% population for two vaccination doses, in other words, leading the world. The even better news: countries with similar case numbers to Australia (about 3.3 million to date) have experienced much higher death rates: compared to Australia’s 5,600 deaths, there have been 36,845 in Canada, 21,141 in Portugal, 210,744 in Peru and 30,217 in Belgium. The conclusion: despite our soaring rates of COVID-19, Australia is still one of the safest countries in the world, which has managed to keep death at a relatively low level. Relatively.

We got lucky with Omicron, but next time could be a different story, say Richard Holden and Steven Hamilton. “There’s no doubt much of our success against Omicron was due to accidents of timing. Our vaccine rollout was delayed by government bungling. The Delta outbreak provided a strong impetus for Australians to get jabbed. And against that backdrop, Omicron arrived just after many had recently been vaccinated or boosted…. Next time could be a different story.”

The not-so-good news: COVID-19 cases, especially – but not only – in New South Wales, are increasing, and may double in the next month. This is due to “the removal of mask mandates, waning vaccine immunity, low booster rates and the perception that the pandemic is ‘over’,” according to Professor Raina MacIntyre. “Schools are also acting as transmission amplifiers, with many families who avoided COVID-19 all this time finding it in the home via their school-aged kids,” Professor MacIntyre said. And the Omicron sub-variant is reportedly “almost as infectious as measles, the most contagious disease on earth.”

The response: Right now, governments are reluctant to re-introduce mask mandates, despite a reported recommendation by NSW Health, which is supported by a number of health experts. A number of Sydney’s private schools are already doing so, and “some public high schools were also struggling with staffing”, so the impact is manifesting in secondary education. This is consistent with CCA’s survey findings that vocational education and training (VET) providers – especially, but not only, adult and community education (ACE) organisations – are finding it difficult to source trainers, especially for aged and disability care, IT, hospitality, TAE and business, a trend especially acute in regional and rural locations.

The burden of COVID-19 does not fall equally on all population groups, so large-scale public health measures mean much more for vulnerable and disadvantaged people than younger and healthy people. Older Australians – and the massively over-worked, stressed, underpaid and under-resourced aged care workforce that looks after them – have been affected much more than others. And disadvantaged Australians have been hit many times more than wealthier and more advantaged groups – at least three times higher, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Pandemic of the forgotten: The New York Times calls it a “pandemic of the forgotten: About seven million Americans who have compromised immune systems from cancer treatments, transplants or other medical conditions. For many, it still feels like the worst days of the early pandemic, before vaccines brought some semblance of safety and protection from COVID .… Many people who are immunocompromised never really stopped behaving the way we all behaved in 2020…. They are vaccinated, but may still be unprotected. Some of them haven’t seen their family or friends in two years.” On a relative population basis, that means about 560,000 Australians fall into this immunocompromised category. They are very unlikely to be returning to classroom study any time soon, except with very strict health considerations.

Poverty makes you sick. “It does this by limiting your access to services and supports, through money or other factors such as the type of job you work. People at the ‘lower end’ of the social gradient also tend to receive poorer quality health care. Unfortunately, this social gradient is now clear in the data on Australian COVID deaths,” write Gemma Carey and Ben O'Mara.

What does this mean for Australia’s adult and community education (ACE) providers delivering skills training and basic education? Remember, this is the Australian VET (skills) sector which achieves the highest percentage of improved employment prospects, with 13% of completing students moving from unemployment to employment, more than any other skills sector. While the ACE sector specialises in delivering to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, these same groups have been most impacted by COVID-19. And not just incidence, but lifestyle and other impacts – loss of work, required isolation and withdrawal from education and training. As CCA discovered in its February 2022 members survey, disadvantaged groups have consistently been withdrawing from training, with student numbers down on average almost half of what they were in 2020 and 2021, both of them difficult COVID years.

VET providers need to remain closely connected to their communities: As community-based organisations, ACE providers are closer to their students and their communities than almost all of the – increasingly centralised – government-run TAFE systems, and the massively large number of for-profit providers, representing 72% of VET activity in 2020. Most private VET organisations are businesses that focus firstly on making a profit, often choosing to deliver the easiest and most in-demand qualifications, moving to online training when it suits, irrespective of learner needs. Research by Dr Don Zoellner (Charles Darwin University) shows that the “marketisation” policies of state governments has meant a withdrawal of private providers from the harder-to-reach regional and rural locations, leaving the regions substantially to TAFEs and community providers, and increasingly concentrating training locations in inner suburbs of larger cities and major regional centres.

It's time to re-connect adult learning and health outcomes, because the more educated you are, the richer you are and the healthier you are, the less chance you have of contracting – and dying from – COVID-19. Let’s start to break the cycle of health-skills-wealth disadvantage by ensuring that Australian ACE providers have the resources, funding and capabilities they need to do what they do best, which is to reach out to and ensure vulnerable and disadvantaged communities thrive with the skills they require. We will follow through on these issues at the upcoming CCA National ACE Summit on 5 April.

By Dr Don Perlgut, 15 March 2022

Follow-up note on 27 March: The findings outlined above about disadvantaged adult learner disengagement during the pandemic is also reflected in school students. A survey of 38 Australian schools by Pivot found that poorer students and girls suffered most in pandemic, with low family income the highest predictor of problems with sleep, schoolwork, health, family and friendships.

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