Disadvantaged Australian students will need long-term support after the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure they don't fall further behind, a children's education charity warns.
The Smith Family is concerned after analysing the impact of the health crisis on students and their families dealing with poverty.
The organisation works with almost 700 schools across Australia to support the education of more than 50,000 disadvantaged students, using its Learning for Life program.
Its teams on the ground have identified several areas of concern after speaking with families about how they have been coping since coronavirus restrictions began in March.
Among them is the digital divide between disadvantaged students and those who are better off.
Some students in families facing poverty have been forced to share one or limited devices with their siblings to do school work while learning from home.
Other families simply don't have internet, while some have had to put their $750 extra payment from the federal government towards buying a laptop for their children's schooling.
There is "huge concern" among families that children will fall behind with their schooling because of these digital issues, along with their disrupted routine and a lack of resources, the Smith Family says.
There is also a "significant risk" that some students will disengage altogether and not return to school next term.
Students in Year 7 who have moved to high school and those in Year 10 are particularly susceptible to this risk, the organisation believes.
Senior secondary and tertiary students are also facing more uncertainty about their post-school futures.
That comes as families are dealing with more financial strain due to the rising cost of living, along with exacerbaed physical and mental health problems and the stress of being cut off from extended family.
Smith Family chief executive Lisa O'Brien says governments, corporates and the community at large have made efforts to support vulnerable students in light of these challenges.
But they will need more support long-term.
"They may require additional learning support to make up for time lost. It's important we act now so these students don't fall even further behind," she said.
Long-term support can also include helping parents to create a rich home learning environment and be meaningfully engaged in their child's education.
Data and evaluation can also be used to help track students' progress and tailor support to them.
Providing every disadvantaged student with their own internet-connected device could help bridge the digital divide.
So too could ensuring families have access to affordable, reliable broadband and technical support lines they can call if they need help with digital proficiency.
"We are really worried about the effect COVID-19 is having on families and children living in poverty." Dr O'Brien said.
"We know this pandemic has the potential to have a serious and long-lasting negative impact on Australia's most vulnerable communities."
Australian Associated Press