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In June, Victorian Children’s Commissioner Liana Buchanan told our social affairs editor, Jewel Topsfield, that “what children tell us … is not going to school really increases their isolation, it increases their anxiety, for many it leaves them feeling completely disconnected from education … If we can find a way to safely keep schools open, I’ll be very, very pleased.”

Sadly, the state government decided otherwise, closing down schools on August 5. But over the next four weeks Victoria’s schools hope to finally welcome back their students. There will doubtless be bumps in that road – already dozens of year 12 students have missed out on their scheduled General Achievement Test and the return is slow and staggered, meaning many families and schools will still be juggling home and school-based learning.

Many children have found home schooling difficult. Credit:Getty Images

But as another long lockdown comes towards its end, even a slow return is a development to be celebrated. It’s to be hoped that by November 5 most children will be back in the company of their classmates and teachers.

The Age believes this return should mark an end to the use of blanket lockdowns for schools, though even critics of that measure, such as Professor Fiona Russell of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, have acknowledged that the Delta strain of the coronavirus presents serious new challenges and that a blanket return to classes may not be immediately possible either. Targeted lockdowns may still be necessary.

For those running our schools and our public health response, the coming weeks are likely to present a series of difficult case-by-case decisions, though Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton assured us this week that a more tailored approach means future quarantines are unlikely to affect whole schools.

Nevertheless, the documented effects of lockdowns on children’s mental health, and the fact that school closures are particularly damaging for children from disadvantaged households who have limited access to online learning, make it clear that our objective should be to restore on-site learning for all.

Education Minister James Merlino said last year that the upheavals of remote learning presented schools with challenges and opportunities. That is also true for the Andrews government, which is racing to get 51,000 air purifiers into schools to address ventilation problems and announced on Monday $230 million for catch-up tutoring to help struggling students in 2022. This money should come in addition to the government’s commitments to improve funding of mental health programs for Victorian schools.

Such measures should mark the beginning of a thorough re-examination of how we provide for our children’s education. To borrow a phrase from US President Joe Biden, we have a chance not just to return to our pre-COVID normal but to “build back better”. We should be looking here not only in terms of teaching methods and the support provided to children falling behind on learning and social indicators, but also at how the whole school environment is structured.

The Grattan Institute’s Julie Sonnemann and Jordana Hunter recommended this week that schools signing up to receive funds for catch-up tutoring should also participate in common assessments before and after the program. This makes perfect sense if we are to work out the impact of what we have been through and what we do next.

With parents around the state looking apprehensively at their calendars, there is a last crucial hurdle: vaccination. This week’s legal challenge to the mandated vaccination of teachers – which is scheduled to go to trial later this month – is unfortunate, given the extremely high rates of uptake in the teaching community.

But The Age hopes that the court’s decision will provide certainty to families, schools and staff alike. After two severely disrupted academic years, that is the least we all deserve. Let’s hope that one day we can look back on these days as a lesson for all of us.

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