Call for National Plan as children tell of lockdown toll

25 October 2021 – The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has insufficiently considered Australian children with seismic impacts on a generation creating urgent needs, according to leading child rights advocates UNICEF Australia and the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY).

The ripple effects on health outcomes and economic and social consequences will be profound, long-lasting and a pathway for them out of the pandemic must include the development of a National Children’s Plan.

The call for a National Children’s Plan comes as a survey has found sidelining children throughout the pandemic has left two thirds of teens feeling the need for mental health checks upon their return to school and one in four (26%) secondary students surveyed believe they’re not academically ready to start a new grade next year.

National Children’s Commissioner, Anne Hollonds said: “I am very concerned that the unique needs of children have not been a priority during the past 19 months with COVID policy focussed primarily on adults.

“Many children are struggling with their learning and mental health, and safety concerns are likely to become increasingly apparent as children return to school.

“Now as was climb out of COVID lockdowns we need to listen to children and act to support their safety, development and wellbeing,” Commissioner Hollonds said.

About a quarter of the secondary students also reported their teacher or school had not checked in with them during lockdown to find out whether they needed help with learning or how they were feeling. Most secondary students supported voluntary (67%) or mandatory (69%) mental health checks for pupils upon their return to school.

Long lockdowns and home-schooling left almost half (49%) of students feeling they have learnt less while being at home than at school and said they would have a tutor in Term 4 (53%) or attend extra lessons over the summer holidays to catch up (47%) if they could. Secondary students said one of their concerns about returning to school is that they want to know how many of their peers are vaccinated.

“Children and young people have been overlooked in the recovery plan and we cannot delay addressing their needs any longer. We have given attention to the needs of adults and now we must elevate children’s priorities, action them with urgency and ensure we place children at the heart of policy making for the years ahead,” said Director of Australian Programs and Child Rights for UNICEF Australia, Nicole Breeze.

“They are struggling with their mental health; they have less hope for the future; they’ve suffered financial hardship and job losses; they’ve lost learning and more from being out of school; and it has exacerbated existing inequalities in Australia, including a digital divide. For example, First Nations students are four times less likely to have internet at home as other public school students.

“The pandemic has demonstrated that if we do not take seriously the needs of children, we will be faced with even greater problems that will affect young people and the community, economically and socially well into the future.”

UNICEF and ARACY are calling for immediate interim action with the release today of a COVID plan outlining six priorities for children and young people:
• Urgently provide support for mental health;
• Provide economic support for those in desperate need;
• Keep schools open safely;
• Listen to children and young people then plan for their futures;
• Prioritise vaccination and vaccination information for children;
• Leave nobody behind in our pandemic response.

ARACY CEO Penny Dakin said: “COVID-19 has exposed hidden inequalities across our community. Young people are experiencing, and witnessing too many of their friends, missing out in schooling, employment, or accessing basic services. We cannot leave anyone behind in our pandemic response.”

The national survey of 1000 students from Year 3 to Year 11 also found children and teenagers indicated their confidence about their education and friendships has been shaken.

As school returns for many children around the nation, overwhelmingly they are looking forward to going back (67%) with reuniting with friends the main reason (75%). Among secondary students there was also a desire (67%) for home learning to be a regular part of the school week for at least one day of the week.

While children reported the adversities of lockdown, they also revealed what they enjoyed most about being at home, such as a slower pace in the morning and spending more time with family.

Click here for Key Priorities for Pathway out of the Pandemic.