Rural students with poor internet connections are slipping through the cracks of remote learning.
Since the Victorian government tightened the criteria around the categories of children who could still attend school campuses during the second period of online learning, students in remote areas with unreliable internet have been cut out of class.
Brothers James, 13, and George, 8, live on a farm with their parents and younger siblings at Stoneleigh, between Skipton and Beaufort, in south west Victoria, but there is little internet reception.
During the first period of remote learning the boys were classed as vulnerable because of their internet issues and allowed to attend school.
But this term they do not qualify, though James' independent school in Ballarat is allowing him to attend and mum Megan is sending him for half the week. The other days he goes to an office where their family farm is run from and completes his lessons there.
Mum Megan Read says it's not just her family but scores of others in more remote areas of the state missing out on school because they can't access reliable internet.
And she's written to the education minister and Department of Education and Training seeking answers.
"The criteria clearly dismisses children that live rurally and have extremely limited internet coverage for online learning purposes," Ms Read said.
"This oversight further enforces the additional challenges that rural children face day to day compared to higher populated regions.
Primary and secondary students that fall into this category should be included as 'vulnerable' and be allowed to attend on-campus learning."
Vulnerable students are children that have a compromised learning environment. Inadequate internet access is clearly a disadvantage during these homeschooling times and should be recognised. For the government to dismiss the digital inequality in remote areas a second time round is inexcusable and a breach of their duty of care.
Ms Read said most schools used live streaming as part of their remote teaching and the bandwidth-intensive streaming was not accessible to those with poor internet coverage.
"Internet dongles are currently provided by the Education Department to assist in improved internet coverage but are not the solution for everyone," she said. "Dongles work through the mobile network which means they're only limited by the quality and availability of mobile signal. Rural areas still using the old 3G network are challenged even more under these circumstances."
And while there is faster NBN available through the Skymuster network, it involves satellite installation at home which currently has a three to five week wait list, is more expensive and has lower data allowances than metropolitan areas.
An NBN assistance package is available through the education department but Ms Read said most families in her situation would struggle to qualify.
Sharon Strzelecki has asked me to pass on a message. So here it is - “the sooner we obey the rules and get this Covid thing OVAH the sooner we can get back to the things that matter...like NETTY!!” #COVID19Victoria#COVID19Vic#springstpic.twitter.com/Tp30I7fM3L— Magda Szubanski AO (@MagdaSzubanski) August 22, 2020
"The challenges and disadvantages of online learning for rural students was made clear to the state during the first lockdown," she said.
"Vulnerable students are children that have a compromised learning environment. Inadequate internet access is clearly a disadvantage during these homeschooling times and should be recognised.
"For the government to dismiss the digital inequality in remote areas a second time round is inexcusable and a breach of their duty of care."
Ms Read said the second lockdown period of remote schooling was proving more difficult than the first.
During the first lockdown Skipton Primary School, where George is in grade 2, provided most activities as worksheets and there was little online content.
"I actually think it's harder this time around because schools have got much better at their online delivery so public primary schools are now doing a lot more online activity."
Ms Read said George's school was very understanding of the situation, but her son got frustrated if he could not take part.
"For example we have all the class on Zoom if there's an online activity. It might cut in and out, take a long time to connect or sometimes we can't even get on at all.
"It's a day by day situation and we are just lucky the school is understanding."
Ms Read said she wrote to the minister and education department out of frustration for her family and others.
When she looked to push for George to be able to attend on-campus classes during the second lockdown, the education department told Ms Read she would need documentation from her internet provider, documents from her local council to verify she is in an internet black-spot and a letter from the health system but it was unclear what that needed to cover in this situation.
"Who has got time to do that? We are home schooling, running a farm business and live an hour from Ballarat ... when all they need to do is change the criteria to include children in this situation."
Despite the challenges of remote education, Ms Read said her boys were doing well.
"Kids are resilient, country kids even more so and everyone is doing their bit," she said.