to children with disability by education providers fell from 56% to 12% during COVID-19
21% of adults
with disability undertook formal or informal study or training in 2020 (28% without disability)
73% of adults
with disability who studied in 2020 did all of their studies online (59% without disability)
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COVID-19 led to significant and long-lasting disruptions to the traditional classroom-based education. In 2020, 1.5 billion students in 188 countries were locked out of their schools (OECD 2021). As the pandemic continued to disrupt education well into 2021, many education systems struggled with adapting to new online modes of learning and maintaining learning continuity and student supports. For students with disability, this may result in added challenges related to reduced individual supports and social interactions, increased reliance on parental supports, and problems with technology.
This section looks at some of the changes in education processes experienced by children, young people and adult students in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The data used in this section are largely from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey. This survey was designed to provide a quick snapshot of the changing social and economic situation for Australian households with particular focus on how they were faring in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The survey was initially conducted between April 2020 and June 2021. From 1 April to 10 July 2020, the survey was conducted fortnightly with the same panel of respondents. From August 2020, the survey was conducted monthly with a new panel. Panel members have rotated, with new members added in November 2020 and March 2021. At the time of writing, the June 2021 survey was the last in the series; the survey was subsequently reinstated for 3 months from February to April 2022.
Each cycle of the survey collected information on different topics. Some topics have been repeated in both fortnightly and monthly surveys. The topics included:
self-assessed physical and mental health
emotional and mental wellbeing
use of health services (including telehealth)
job situation (including access to leave, job search and working from home arrangements)
training and development of skills
household finances (including income, saving, spending and financial stress)
receipt of government assistance payments and supports
care and assistance provided to vulnerable people inside and outside of household
caring for children and child care and schooling arrangements during COVID-19
social contacts and participation in activities
personal and household stressors
COVID-19 vaccination attitudes and experiences
behaviours around COVID-19 testing
precautions taken due to COVID-19
life after COVID-19.
Disability status was captured in the survey using a subset of questions from the ABS Short Disability Module. While this module provides useful information about the characteristics of people with disability relative to those without, it is not recommended for use in measuring disability prevalence.
In the survey, a person is considered to have disability if they have one or more conditions (including long-term health conditions) which have lasted, or are likely to last, for at least 6 months and restrict everyday activities.
The survey collected data from people aged 18 and over in private dwellings across Australia (excluding very remote areas). It did not include people living in institutional settings, such as aged care facilities.
Due to constant and rapid changes in the COVID-19 situation, the numbers reported in this section should be viewed in the context of the situation at the time of data collection. Therefore, throughout this section, references are made to the month in which the data were collected. A brief timeline of COVID-19 in Australia between January 2020 and October 2021 is provided below for reference.
New daily COVID-19 cases in Australia between January 2020 and October 2021
Source: COVID-19 in Australia
- first case of COVID-19 in Australia reported on 25 January 2020
- new cases among international arrivals only
- public health measures comprised blocking international arrivals from some countries.
March–April 2020 – first wave
- first cases of community transmission of the virus (2 March); the number of daily new cases grew sharply from the beginning of March, reached a peak of 464 on 28 March, and then started falling to fewer than 20 cases a day by the end of April
- Australian borders closed to all non-residents on 20 March; from 27 March, returning residents were required to spend 2 weeks in supervised quarantine hotels
- introduction of border control measures for some states and territories
- introduction of physical distancing rules (21 March), and restrictions on non-essential gatherings and services (such as pubs, gyms and cinemas) (22 March)
- announcement of first (12 March) and second (22 March) economic stimulus packages; a safety net package for mental health, telehealth and domestic violence services, and emergency food relief (29 March); JobKeeper payment (30 March) and free child care for working parents (2 April).
May–June 2020 – gradual easing of restrictions
- continuing international border closures; continuing state and territory border control measures for some jurisdictions; slight easing of restrictions in some states and territories (from 1–12 May)
- The National Cabinet’s three-stage plan to begin easing restrictions (8 May)
- Stage 1: allowing gatherings of up to 10 people, up to 5 visitors in the family home, and some local and regional travel
- Stage 2: expansion of stage 1, with gatherings of up to 20 people, and more businesses reopening, including gyms, beauty services and entertainment venues
- Stage 3: the ‘new normal’ – transition to COVID-safe ways of living and working, with gatherings of up to 100 people permitted
- average daily case numbers around 15 throughout May, fewer than 10 in the first half of June
- all jurisdictions in stage 2 and some in stage 3 during June.
July–October 2020 – second wave
- restrictions reinstated in regions of Victoria from 1 July due to new COVID-19 clusters
- second wave largely localised to Melbourne and much more widespread and deadlier than the first (at its peak, Victoria had more than 7,000 active cases).
- the wave ended with zero new cases being recorded on 26 October 2020.
November 2020–June 2021
- cluster outbreaks in late 2020 and mid-2021, with several brief snap lockdowns in certain states to contain the spread.
July–October 2021 – third wave
- an outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant during June 2021 in New South Wales caused lockdowns for almost half of Australia's population and most major cities from early July 2021
- the outbreak continued to worsen to new record daily cases into August. In late August to mid-September 2021 Victoria had its first 9 deaths since late October 2020.
Many children and young people with disability experienced a change in the operation of their school or education facility during COVID-19. In the CYDA Education Survey 2020, 2 in 3 respondents (67%) reported that their school or education facility moved to remote learning (Dickinson et al. 2020). For some respondents, the changes went beyond that:
- 12% reported their school or education facility had closed
- 4% reported that their education facility had reduced its hours
- 1% reported that the student’s enrolment had been cancelled (Dickinson et al. 2020).
CYDA Education Survey 2020
Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA), a national representative organisation for children and young people (aged 0–25) with disability, ran an online survey between 28 April and 14 June 2020 about education-specific issues experienced by young people with disability during COVID-19. The survey covered the periods when schools were mostly closed to students, and when the majority of students transitioned back to face-to-face teaching (Dickinson et al. 2020). The survey was promoted among CYDA members (more than 5,000 people) and via social media by other disability advocacy organisations. Respondents self-selected to participate.
Of 719 respondents, 95% were family members of students with disability, and 5% were young people with disability (Dickinson et al. 2020).
Of the young people with disability who responded (or on whose behalf information was provided):
- 85% were school students, and a further 4% were university, TAFE or vocational education students
- 76% of school students were enrolled in a mainstream school, 17% in a special school, and 3% in both types of school
- 73% were NDIS participants; of these, 31% were receiving NDIS funding to assist in accessing education (prior to COVID-19) (Dickinson et al. 2020).
During this time the responsibility for education shifted away from teachers and schools to parents:
- 78% of respondents reported that parents and carers were mainly responsible for providing the student’s daily education routine
- 12% reported the responsibility stayed with the same teacher or educator as before the pandemic.
For some students with disability, the shift to remote learning could be problematic due to difficulties with accessibility of online platforms or learning materials:
- curriculum and learning materials were provided in accessible format to 50% of respondents
- just under half (46%) of respondents had regular contact with the education provider to ensure learning was accessible
- about a quarter (24%) received assistance with technology to support learning at home (Dickinson et al. 2020).
Supports provided by education facilities had drastically decreased during the pandemic. The proportions of respondents receiving supports before and during the pandemic had decreased for all types of supports covered by the survey:
- individual support worker (for example, education aide, learning support worker) (56% of respondents had received this support before COVID-19 compared with 12% during the pandemic)
- supervision (proportion receiving support fell from 48% to 10%)
- social support (fell from 43% to 9%)
- specific aides and equipment (from 40% to 10%)
- behavioural support (fell from 34% to 7%)
- access to specialist allied health (fell from 38% to 15%)
- assistance with personal care (fell from 27% to 8%)
- curriculum modification (fell from 54% to 35%) (Dickinson et al. 2020).
The CYDA survey further highlighted how COVID-19 affected the experience of education for children and young people with disability and their families:
- 72% of students felt more socially isolated from their peers
- 66% of respondents reported the family was not provided with assistance to support the learning of the student with disability during the COVID-19 pandemic
- 61% of respondents thought that the child or young person with disability did not receive adequate educational support during the pandemic (Dickinson et al. 2020).
The survey found that students who received support had better outcomes in maintaining their engagement and reducing social isolation. Support was most effective when more than one type was provided. Those who received 2 or more types of support were:
- more likely than those who did not receive any supports to feel a part of a learning community
- more likely to say they received adequate support in their education
- more likely than those who did not receive support to be engaged in their learning
- less likely to feel socially isolated (Dickinson et al. 2020)
Of the different types of support, social support (which typically involves helping to connect children and young people to their peers in meaningful ways) was most strongly associated with students feeling supported, part of a learning community, engaged in learning and feeling less isolated. This support type saw one of the largest decreases during the pandemic (from 43% to 9%) (Dickinson et al. 2020).
In January, February and June 2021, the Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey asked Australians aged 18 and over about their education and training activities.
- 21% of adults (aged 18 and over) with disability and 28% of adults without disability undertook formal or informal study or training
- 9.0% of adults with disability and 13% of those without disability undertook study for a qualification (ABS 2021b).
The proportion studying for a qualification during 2020 was broadly consistent with the 2018 findings in the Education and skills section of this report, when 9.1% of people aged 15–64 with disability were studying for a non-school qualification at the time of the 2018 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) (15% without disability) (ABS 2019).
For those who undertook training or study in 2020, adults with disability were:
- more likely to have done all of their study online (73% compared with 59% of adults without disability)
- less likely to have done at least some of their study face-to-face (27% compared with 41%) (ABS 2021b).
In January 2021, people with disability (20%) were less likely to report an intention to study in the next 6 months than those without disability (27%) (ABS 2021a).
In June 2021, people with and without disability were asked about the study they had done in 2021. Both groups were similarly likely to:
- have done study or training since January 2021 (25% and 29%)
- intend to undertake study or training in 2021 but have not started (22% and 26%) (ABS 2021c).
Of people with and without disability who had done study or training in 2021 or intended to but had not started, 9.2% and 2.7% reported that one of the reasons was that they had more time available during COVID-19 restrictions (ABS 2021c).
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2019) Microdata: disability, ageing and carers, Australia, 2018, ABS cat. no. 4430.0.30.002, AIHW analysis of TableBuilder data, accessed 13 October 2020.
ABS (2021a) Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, January 2021, ABS, accessed 26 November 2021.
ABS (2021b) Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, February 2021, ABS, accessed 26 November 2021.
ABS (2021c) Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, June 2021, ABS, accessed 10 May 2022.
Dickinson H, Smith C, Yates S and Bertuol M (2020) Not even remotely fair: experiences of students with disability during COVID-19, report prepared for Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA), CYDA, Melbourne, accessed 21 January 2022.
OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) (2021) The state of school education: one year into the COVID pandemic, OECD Publishing, Paris, accessed 21 January 2022.