Zoey could have been a kid who never came back to school after lockdown, but one simple step changed everything

They are the kids who didn't come back.

The often-vulnerable students who suffered more than most by losing the equality of the classroom. 

Instead of a sleep-in and frustrating internet speeds, for them no face-to-face learning meant navigating violence or homelessness. 

Some lost their way. Young and marginalised, their stories have been largely untold. 

Zoey was one of them — and she is ready to tell hers.  

Catch up on the main COVID-19 news from November 16 with a look back at our blog

Back from the brink

At the height of the 2020 lockdown, 13-year-old Zoey, from Kellyville in Sydney's north-west, spent her days lying on the lounge at home in despair. 

She was withdrawn. She didn't speak to anyone.

zoe with books
Zoey stopped speaking to people and engaging in school work. (ABC News: Niall Lenihan)

While Zoey's classmates were continuing lessons and enjoying social support to soothe the uncertain times, she had dropped out of class, and barely anyone noticed.

After a traumatic personal experience, Zoey and her mother, Jess, were also newly homeless.

But worse was to come. 

Zoey was diagnosed with depression. 

"She had changed, there was something in her that was broken," her mother said.

"It was hard. I didn't know what services were out there."

A middle-aged woman in an apartment building area.
Zoey's mother, Jess, says her daughter had become withdrawn.  (ABC News: Niall Lenihan)

For Zoey, the world outside seemed bleak and pointless.

"You lose the motivation to do everything and anything, you see no point in a lot of stuff," she said. 

Zoey's education — and the transformative power that came with it — was at risk.

And she wasn't alone.

'Falling through the cracks'

Lockdowns have made it harder to get accurate data on how many students lost their connection to school, and never came back. 

But exclusive analysis supplied to the ABC from Mission Australia suggests the number could be significant. 

The Mission's annual youth survey shows that 2020 was the first year in nearly a decade where young people aged 15 to 19 years attending school or training fell below the 90 per cent mark, dropping from 93.3 per cent in 2019 to 86.6 per cent last year.

Talyah went from being frustrated at school to wanting to be a teacherA mother and daughter holding a cat.

Like an estimated 50 per cent of low-income families, Vanessa struggles to pay for internet and she fears her daughter will get left behind. 

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Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge and education sector leaders were concerned over preliminary NAPLAN results that showed most students performed well with remote learning actually masking the kids who did not return.

"I'm certainly worried about students in my home state of Victoria where many kids haven't had an uninterrupted school term since 2019," Minister Tudge told the ABC.

"I have heard numerous reports of kids falling through the cracks and we need to be doing everything we can to keep them connected to school so they don't drop out early."

Making a difference 

This year, despite continued lockdowns in New South Wales, Zoey got back to school and stayed there. 

That was thanks to a new program being run by Youth Off the Streets at its Eden College in Sydney's Macquarie Fields, about 40 kilometres south-west of the CBD.

The Schooling via Off-campus Learning for At-Risk students [SOLAR] program is demonstrating that so-called "school refusers" can be lured back to the classroom with the right support.

It was created during the height of the 2020 lockdowns.

Ironically, for many students, the same learning model that broke the connection to school was offering a bridge back to the classroom.

Lead teacher Amy Gill said she noticed many previously disengaged students actually preferred remote learning.

A teacher looking at a student.
Amy Gill has worked countless hours and weekends to build the infrastructure for the school.(ABC News: Niall Lenihan)

"There were some young people, particularly those with social anxiety, [who] experienced trauma at school or were long-term school refusers that really thrived in that remote-learning environment," Ms Gill said.

Under the program, students complete two days of remote learning and three days at school each week.

They also receive personalised curricula. 

"We focus a lot on belonging and making kids feel safe," Ms Gill said.

"When you take care of those physical and mental needs of young people, that frees them up to grow academically.

"It's not asking students to adapt to the way we work — we're adapting to the way they work."

The biggest indicator of success has been a sharp rise in school attendance with students who missed years of learning now clocking 70 to 80 per cent attendance rates.

"I've got students [who] haven't been to school for two years in the SOLAR program," Ms Gill said.

'School refusers' to school lovers

For many years, truanting teens and their parents were dealt with through harsh fines, school punishments and visits from government agencies.

Advocates and educators say that, with the impact of the pandemic still unknown, the time for change is now.

It's back to school for some students but parents still worry about COVID-19a woman sitting down smiling and holding her son

While parents are glad their children are getting back to some normality, they know the virus is still out there.

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With a shift in understanding has also come a shift in language, with many schools now referring to these teens as "school refusers".

The program is offering hope to schools around the country who fear they have lost some students for good after months of remote learning.

"What I would like to say to other schools is that there is a solution to school refusal: It's about changing priority," Amy Gill said.

A young woman with a teacher, both wearing masks, in a school environment.
Zoey has a new-found passion for school after joining the program.(ABC News: Niall Lenihan)

For Zoey, improving her school attendance has led to a happier, richer life.

She's cultivated an interest in art and Japanese Manga comics and is also writing a book.

The teenager is now so dedicated to her studies, she takes three trains and a bus to get to the Macquarie Hills campus.

"It's [hard] to [find] people who I get along with really well and I found that here, so it makes the journey worth it," she said.

Her mother could not be more proud.

"She's excited, she gets up. She gets herself into a routine," Jess said. 

"She's finally coming back out of that shell that she withdrew into."

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Your information is being handled in accordance with the ABC Privacy Collection Statement.Posted 10 Nov 202110 Nov 2021Wed 10 Nov 2021 at 7:00pm, updated 10 Nov 202110 Nov 2021Wed 10 Nov 2021 at 9:14pmShareCopy linkFacebookTwitterArticle share optionsShare this onFacebookTwitterLinkedInSend this byEmailMessengerCopy linkWhatsApp

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