Shut down schools to slow COVID-19

March 22, 2020
There is a growing call from unionised teachers to shut schools down to protect themselves and the community. Photo: Australian Education Union

Debate over whether schools should be shut down to stop the spread of COVID-19 have focused on many aspects, including economics, grandparents who may be affected and the students' education. But it has not included the workers who are directly affected.

While schools are open, teachers, education support staff, canteen workers, school caretakers and cleaners are the ones most likely to be exposed to the virus.

We are not happy: we have not been asked about our concerns, preparedness to keep working, or our ideas about how to deal with this workplace threat.

In addition, we have not been supplied with any extra protective materials, safety gear or hand sanitisers. One school principal who requested additional cleaning materials was told by the Department of Education that schools were clean enough!

When school staff ask for basic protective supplies, they are told it is on its way. However, the supplies are yet to materialise, meaning that education workers themselves are again forking out for them.

The health department's social distancing restrictions of four square metres a person in an enclosed space, such as a classroom, cannot work in a room of 25 or more students. In any case, the rules are not consistently followed by students who share drink bottles, hug, high five or tackle each other (no matter how frequently teachers remind them not to).

COVID-19 not yet understood

Health experts now say children and young people are contracting the virus and, although they may not suffer seriously, are passing it on.

Professor Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College London and director of the Medical Research Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, said that while it was not fully understood whether children transmitted the virus in the same way as other illnesses, closing schools could slow down the rate of transmission.

Melbourne-based Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity Laboratory head Professor Katherine Kedzierska said on March 17 that as this is a new virus, very little is known about its behaviour.

Professor of Paediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine and the Regenstrief Institute Aaron E Carroll said: “Adults can be given instructions on how to prevent person-to-person transmission, and can be relied upon to follow those instructions to varying degrees, but it’s almost impossible to get children, especially younger ones, to do so.

“If you have a child, you most likely rolled your eyes if you read my recent article about the importance of getting children to wash their hands rigorously, cough into their elbows only, and not touch their face,” he said.

As everyone knows, schools are well suited to spread disease. Carroll writes teachers, janitors and food preparation workers are all being put at risk by keeping the schools open.

There have even been cases of education workers being abused because parents expect stricter hygiene measures, which are hard to implement if we don't have the materials.

Slowing the spread

According to Carroll, closing schools can make a big difference in flattening the curve, as evidence from past epidemics shows.

"A 2006 study in Nature that modelled an influenza outbreak found that closing school during the peak of a pandemic could reduce the speed of the spread by 40%. Another study in 2016 in BMC Infectious Diseases found that, based on the influenza pandemic of 2009, closing schools could reduce the attack rate by up to 25% and the rate of new cases by more than 50%.

"Even the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918–19 provides some compelling data. Comparing United States cities that took action with those that did not, researchers reported in a 2007 study in Journal of the American Medical Association that closing schools contributed to significant reductions in the peak death rate, as well as overall deaths."

Under COVID-19, we are told that because China and South Korea closed all their schools the rate of infection is slowing.

Nearly all schools include some workers with health issues, such as asthma or diabetes, or people undergoing cancer treatment. Consideration about whether schools should be closed must take all workers’ health and wellbeing into consideration.

There are concerns about putting grandparents, who are often small children's carers if a parent is unable to stay home, at risk if schools are closed. Low-income families will also be hit, especially if one parent has to stop work.

But is it fair to put teachers and other school staff in the COVID-19 line of fire?

Education workers feel we are being deployed as “babysitters” so that the economy is not disrupted. We are feeling very stressed: some are being asked to work even harder because parents, who have withdrawn their children, want course and lesson guides. Now in Victoria, every government school has been instructed to put all coursework online, although we have not been given extra time to do this.

More than 30 countries, including Britain, have closed their public schools. They have managed this in different ways: childcare can be provided for some parents, such as health-care workers, and a skeleton staff, who are adequately protected against the virus and prepared to continue working, employed at schools. Private schools across Australia, which have taken a lead in closing, are already following this model.

In South Korea, schools have been shut down and emergency childcare facilities for essential workers have been provided for free by the state.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison keeps repeating that the economic impact of school closures would be “very severe”, inadvertently pointing to its cornerstone role in society and the potential for teachers to flex our collective industrial muscle in this COVID-19 emergency.

As a teacher friend said: “Education workers should know that we do have more power than we are probably aware of. We are more than 'just teachers'.”

It is already past time to close down the schools.

[Mary Merkenich is a member of the Australian Education Union and the Socialist Alliance.]

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