School attendance levels may never return to normal

wagging school

There is a risk that school attendance levels will not return to their pre-pandemic norm, says head of New South Wales Catholic schools, Dallas McInerney.

He wants an inquiry into the long-term consequences of shutting down schools during the pandemic.

In a speech to school leaders last week, McInerney said he had argued to keep schooling as normal as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He also fought against the “easy option” of cancelling Higher School Certificate (HSC) exams, he said.

“As government regulation meant our students were physically isolated from their peers and teachers … it has been found that too many were exposed to heightened levels of health and economic unease, through the media and in their homes.

“We also have a lasting effect on school attendance … we know that the workforce has not – and perhaps will not – return to pre-COVID levels of at-work attendance, and the same is true of students in NSW.”

Attendance decline

NSW most recent attendance data shows over 60 percent of its public high school students missed at least four weeks of class in 2022. That’s the worst attendance level on record.

While community illness was higher than usual, indicators suggest wagging was up.

There was a rise in students missing school on Fridays, with no reason supplied.

The stats also show that in the public system last year parents failed to explain children’s absence for the equivalent of 3.8 million days.

After the speech, McInerney explained why he backed an inquiry into the pandemic response.

He said the effects of pandemic-related decisions, including closing down physical schooling, are still being felt.

If another pandemic came along, he thinks there would be many benefits to a review to see “if we got it right” and “what happens next.”


Australia’s federal executive government, under Anthony Albanese’s leadership, has yet to launch an inquiry into the federal and state governments’ responses to the pandemic.

In a pre-election promise, Albanese’s government promised to hold a “royal commission or some form of inquiry” into the country’s handling of COVID-19.

NSW Premier Chris Minns has dismissed the need for a royal commission.

However, McInerney says any inquiry could examine how best to address the pandemic’s effects, including increased mental health issues and school absenteeism.

The drop-off in school attendance “should be the biggest alarm bell,” he says.

Higher School Certificate

In his speech, McInerney said he successfully argued for HSC exams to continue “when others considered the easy option of cancellation”.

Sarah Mitchell, who was the education minister at that time, also wanted exams to proceed as normal.

Decisions to close schools to most students were made in line with health advice.

“We were also very conscious of the impacts of learning from home and how students were coping with the disruption and lack of routine.”

Mitchell also prioritised enabling the HSC exams to continue.

A NSW Department of Education spokesman said COVID challenged schools across the globe.

“Teachers in NSW went above and beyond to support their students,” he said.


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