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Remote Learning is Nothing New to Outback Families

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The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Besha Rodell, a columnist with the Australia bureau.


When I was 13, my father, brother and I took the long trip from Melbourne to visit my aunt Pat and her family in the Northern Territory. We traveled by car and train, allowing us to truly grasp the size of Australia. And yet, nothing prepared me for the vastness of the cattle station where my aunt and her family lived.

At around a million and a quarter acres, their farm was larger than Rhode Island. They were a three-hour drive from the nearest town and a seven hour drive from Darwin, the nearest major city.

Pat raised eight children on the station. Their schooling — from kindergarten through high school — was done remotely, at first via correspondence with a school in Adelaide, and then via two way radio when the School of the Air became available to them.

(The New York Times wrote a story about these types of schools in the Northern Territory in 1997, well after Pat’s youngest child graduated.)

It was Pat I thought of this week when my own son’s school sent an email detailing plans for distance learning during term two, starting next week, as part of a statewide move on the part of Victoria to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Very few people know so much about educating children remotely — but Pat is a national exception. After raising her own children, Pat became an educator in remote communities and co-founded the Katherine branch of the Isolated Children’s Parents Association. Her work has earned her numerous accolades, including the Order of Australia and a nomination for Senior Australian of the Year in 2019.

Now her expertise in demand once again. Both the Australia Day Council and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation have recently contacted her in the hope she might provide encouragement to parents who are anxious about their children’s education in a time when distance learning may be the best option.

“There is a lot of unwarranted panic about this,” Pat told me this week by phone from her home in Katherine. “This is not going to affect the intelligence of your children one iota.”

She points out that distance learning has been in place, and been successful, all around the world and for many years. “People think this is the first and only time this has ever been done,” she said.

The Times has plenty of advice for parents dealing with children learning at home, along with a report on overburdened mothers during the pandemic, and good coverage of what it meant when New York City schools moved to remote learning.

My own anxieties about remote learning for my teenage son have more to do with the burden of policing his time, just one more thing in a long list of chores and responsibilities I spend time nagging him about. Despite that, I know that he’ll be OK in part because he has parents who are concerned in the first place.

“Distance learning only works when parents are at least somewhat involved,” Pat told me.

For children in negative home environments, school can be a welcome respite. Both Pat and I worry far more about those kids than children like my own, who mostly have to deal with anxious, supportive nagging.

And yet for all of us who took for granted that school would be a constant, the cancellation of classes — with no clear end in sight — brings challenges both educational and domestic.

What parts of parenting have been most difficult for you during coronavirus isolation? Let us know at [email protected]

Here are the week’s stories:



Last week, we wrote about seeking connection in a time of social distancing, and asked how you were staying connected. Here’s one reader’s response:

Credit…Ian Thompson

My neighbors and I are having a ‘Pandemic on the Patio — Pyrmont Covid Cocktail Hour’ every Friday. We meet on our respective balconies to take in our beautiful view of Sydney Harbour and ‘the bridge’ and share an hour and half of ‘bubbles and babble.’ It is joyful and has also proven to put a smile on the faces of anyone who passes by!

— Kim Chandler McDonald


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