Tallen Robinson’s 14th birthday fell on the first weekend of the school vacation, but he spent it away from his family in Wee Waa, northwest New South Wales, and away from his native community .
Robinson is one of 3,744 Indigenous students attending boarding schools in Australia, according to the 2021 Australian Boarding Schools Association census, many of whom found that the pandemic had created barriers to accessing and accessing educational opportunities. families.
The national cabinet last week approved the National Code for Boarding School Students tabled by Bridget McKenzie, the regional Minister of Education, which aims to “provide a national approach to meeting the travel needs of boarding school students during blockages of Covid-19 â.
McKenzie said in a statement “Special attention will be paid to the complexities of Indigenous residential students and the needs of their communities.”
When Guardian Australia asked if the code protects students from quarantine upon return to school, the minister’s office said “jurisdictions are responsible for implementing the code in accordance with relevant boards of health” .
Even with the code’s approval, Robinson’s mother Cherie Allen said “it made absolutely no difference to us.”
His son will not be returning home for the September vacation as there is no guarantee that he will not have to quarantine himself for 14 days upon his return. She said it could jeopardize not only her learning, having to miss classes, but also her sanity.
The 3,744 Indigenous boarding school students reported in the ABSA 2021 census represented a decrease of nearly 100 students from the previous year, which until 2021 had shown an upward trend since 2018.
Richard Stokes, Managing Director of the Australian Boarding Schools Association (ABSA), said the explanation for this drop in indigenous student numbers was Covid.
âThere are families who are afraid that their children will not be able to return home. The closing of the borders has been the biggest point of grief we have had from the start. “
Louise Lonergan, a wellness coordinator who supports Indigenous residents at a college in Victoria, said that for many Indigenous residential students, the quarantine experience required to travel between school and home adds to their feeling of isolation.
Lonergan said his school was no longer able to accept other distant students because it is too difficult to accommodate the quarantine provisions for minors where staff or volunteers must spend two weeks in quarantine with the student.
Allen said that after the eight days of isolated quarantine his son had gone through, he told her he felt like “I am a prisoner in Australia”.
Lonergan said her school where she works three of six indigenous students from remote communities in northern Australia had not returned to school in person since they were sent home when the lockdown hit for the first time in 2020. They were unable to take the online classes since most do not have internet access at home.
Lonergan said the impact on the education of Indigenous children has been “significant” because even for those who have returned to residential schools “it’s a shutdown.”
âThe government is talking about closing the gap in Aboriginal education, but it is far from being closed. And the impact of the pandemic adds another hurdle. For many, they’re still two years behind, for others it’s two years of inconsistent schooling, âLonergan said.
Stokes said boarding schools with Indigenous distance learning students “do everything they can to help with learning and mental health.”
Robinson is the recipient of a Yalari scholarship available to Indigenous children from regional, rural or remote communities to attend residential school and continue their education. Allen said the initiative came from his son to apply for the scholarship. âI want to be something mom,â he told her.
Yet now, due to the pandemic, Robinson has not seen his family since early July, and has missed spending school holidays with his elders, learning about Aboriginal culture.
Allen said his son and daughter look forward to the holidays when they have time to spend with their aunt and uncle who take them into the bush, teach them and record indigenous cultural artifacts like rock paintings, as well as participate in traditional cuisines. .
Instead, Robinson will spend the next vacation with the family of another resident of Toowoomba Grammar who lives on a farm in Warwick, Queensland and has offered to host him.
Robinson told his mother he wished he could be home for the holidays, but the only thing he looks forward to is passing on his cultural knowledge on earth to his friend Harry.
Dr John Kinniburgh, principal of Toowoomba Grammar School, said “we understand how difficult this situation is for our interstate residents and their families”, but that the school community has come together to provide alternative housing for the boarders during the holidays.
Dr Marnie O’Bryan, a researcher at the Center for Aboriginal Economic Policy at the Australian National University, studied a remote community in the Northern Territory, where 22 students returned home from 10 different boarding schools last year due to the pandemic.
O’Byran said the pandemic had brought to light the problem more generally with secondary education in remote parts of Australia, where the infrastructure and resources for secondary education have been in great demand. part dismantled.
As a result, when high school students are sent home after boarding, “the only option they have is to go back to the local primary school which will hold a composite class for all high school age children.”
O’Bryan said boarding school involvement was very uneven and depended on the individual school. Of the 10 boarding schools, she said only one school was in contact with the local elementary school to send materials and offer to supervise children with distance learning.
O’Bryan said that some schools may have communicated directly with young people, but that young people living in crowded housing without good access to an Internet connection, often without an Internet connection, meant “their ability to engage with anything. that their boarding school could seek to provide as a support for their learning is severely constrained by the living conditions in the community â.
She also said boarding schools continued to receive government funds for the students they educated, while the remote school received no additional funding to cover the cost of feeding students’ breakfast and lunch. , or for any additional infrastructure or personnel to oversee the education of students.