Term 2 threw teachers a curveball nobody saw coming. As COVID-19 cases grew, the number of children attending school shrank until the call was made to switch, briefly, to a remote learning model.
As Term 3 begins and virus cases are increasing again, the education system is reflecting on what worked well, what could be integrated into regular school life and what could be done differently if children were sent home once again.
Some students floundered in the world of Google Hangouts and self-guided learning while others students soared. President of the ACT Council of Parents and Citizens Associations and mother of two Kirsty McGovern-Hooley said her eldest daughter, who had just started high school, thrived under the remote model.
"Being autistic, she finds it really difficult going to some of the mainstream classes and doesn't like social interactions," Mrs McGovern-Hooley said.
"So the remote learning for her meant she had substantially fewer social interactions and it was all very well-managed on her computer." Her youngest daughter received a package of work in the mail, thoughtfully labelled by her class teacher who knew the paper-based format would better suit her learning style. She said parents were pushing to keep some of the learning strategies that were implemented during remote learning in place for the long term.
"If you've got a child who has not been engaging in school at all and now suddenly they've gone from one to five hours of school work, let's capitalise on that and make those adjustments."
Some children inevitably slipped behind in their learning. The ACT Education Directorate has been praised for issuing hundreds of internet dongles to families, Chromebooks for upper primary students and iPads for lower primary students so that no child missed out because of a lack of access to technology.
However, parents reported feeling stressed about finding time to supervise their children while working from home and dealing with the new COVID-19 world. Ross Hawkins, the senior group manager of service design and delivery at the ACT Education Directorate, said while college students were very well set up for remote learning, it was very tough for the younger students.
"There were sessions through iPads and there was a connection with their teachers but at that level and that age, at the kindy to year 3 end, really the best engagement is through classroom-based learning. So that's why we wanted to get that cohort particularly back into schools first."
Upon return to school, teachers were tasked with making the transition a smooth one while assessing where students were at in their learning. Mr Hawkins said the focus was on social and emotional well-being rather than academic achievement.
"Teachers were trying to make them feel safe, settled, connected back in with their classrooms and then kind of progressing into the learning and what needed to be done in terms of any additional help and support that students might need," Mr Hawkins said.
Researchers have warned more resources will be needed to help disadvantaged students overcome learning lost during the time spent at home. A study co-authored by Grattan Institute fellow Julie Sonnemann found the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers widened at triple the usual rate during the period of remote learning.
Ms Sonnemann said extra resources were needed to help students catch-up, such as small group tutoring sessions and more literacy and numeracy programs.
"COVID-19 has exacerbated the existing barriers that disadvantaged students face at school, and it is critical that extra support is provided," Ms Sonnemann said.
"Schools and teachers are stretched beyond their usual capacities, and need extra support too."
Mandy Kalyvas, senior director of learning and teaching at the directorate and former principal of Hawker Primary School, said all students sat somewhere on the learning continuum and schools already had strategies to help each individual student.
"Teachers are professionals. They take every child as an individual and they meet them at their point of need and then they push them on so they can experience success in their learning.
"So I don't think anything additional is required on top of that."
Teachers underwent rapid professional learning during the initial pupil free period, getting to know the digital tools and techniques to transform their lesson plans into activities that could be delivered remotely. The result was some innovative learning experiences.
Year 5/6 Students at Giralang Primary School, for instance, attended a virtual excursion to Questacon where they learned how planes fly and then build and modified paper planes based on real-life engineering.
The directorate also set a home learning challenge which asked students to explore the concept of home in a personal project. Some students built models or researched animal habitats while others wrote poems and stories or composed original music inspired by the theme.
Ms Kalyvas said teachers' thirst for innovation and collaboration has been accelerated by remote learning, something the directorate wanted to foster going forward.
The relationship between parents and schools has also never been stronger. Mrs McGovern-Hooley said parental engagement was at its peak during remote learning.
"I was sitting down trying to teach multiplication to my year 5 kid. She's autistic and so it was really interesting going back and forth with the teacher about different ways that she would try to teach that," she said.
"So we ended up getting glass beads and counters and all sorts of different things to try to illustrate some of the concepts."
Now parents and educators are keeping a close eye on the developing situation in Victoria. While there are no plans to go back into remote teaching in Term 3 at this stage, the directorate feels more confident that schools could pivot once again if necessary.
When students head back to class for the new term, things won't be back to normal. Whole school assemblies and excursions are still out of the question and hand sanitiser bottles are stationed in every room.
Mrs McGovern-Hooley said parents wanted to bring back as sense of fun and community later in the year.
"We're looking forward to doing a few things like running a school disco," she said.