Is it safe to open schools?

May 4, 2020
For schools to reopen safely, inequities in the education system also need to be resolved.

The federal Coalition government is exerting a lot of pressure on states to re-open schools.

On May 3, federal education minister Dan Tehan accused Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews of “taking a sledgehammer” to children’s education. Tehan went on to accuse Andrews of blocking the consensus in the National Cabinet supporting children returning to school and failing to heed medical evidence that students and staff are safe in the school environment.

Later that morning, the Victorian government reported that a teacher at a state primary school had tested positive for COVID-19. Hours later, Tehan released a statement withdrawing his comments.

On April 14, Prime Minister Scott Morrison released a video message urging teachers to return to the classroom. “The education of our children hangs in the balance,” he said. On April 24, Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton accused the Queensland government of being controlled by the teachers’ union, saying that they were putting union bosses interests ahead of kids. Tehan has also tried to bribe private schools with an offer of $3.3 billion if they start face-to-face teaching within a month.

Pressure from governments to return to the classroom has more to do with economic, rather than educational, outcomes. “When you look at every area that is going to drive economic and productivity growth, getting kids back in school is top of the list,” Dominic Perrottet, New South Wales Treasurer told the Sun Herald on May 3.

The federal government claims that remote learning is having the biggest negative impact on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. In the May 2 Saturday Paper Jane Caro took issue with the federal government’s new-found concern for disadvantaged students, as expressed in its funding priorities.

“As a direct result of the government’s lack of interest in the schools that overwhelmingly educate our poorest children, most private schools are now funded above the minimum resource standard,” she said.

“The Liberal-National Coalition, it seems, is clinging to its long-held — if totally irrational — belief that money only helps the already rich. It has no benefit for the already poor. In reality, students in a position of disadvantage are actually the most expensive to teach, precisely because they need more resources to catch up to their more fortunate peers.”

Schools in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory have already reopened classrooms. Teachers in NSW will be required to return to the classroom from May 11. The Queensland government will make a decision on May 15.

State-run schools in Victoria, ACT and Tasmania will continue with remote learning, where possible, for Term 2. In WA, a propaganda war between the Labor government and the teachers’ union has broken out. The union representing public school teachers posted full-page advertisements asking parents to keep their children at home. The government is urging them to go back to school.

Both federal and state governments claim they are basing their policies to return to school on expert medical advice.

Debate continues

However, there is no unanimity. While the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer has frequently said that schools are safe for students and teachers to return to, the Victorian Chief Health Officer Dr Brett Sutton has said “Schools are not ‘dangerous places’ and parents should feel comfortable sending their kids to school — if they need to.”

Importantly, he also said: “The mix of onsite and offsite learning supports better physical distancing overall, reducing risk as we drive new cases down. As risk changes, we’ll reassess … This is because having around a million children and their parents in closer contact with each other, teachers and other support staff has the potential to increase cases of coronavirus — not just in schools but across the community.”

Whether children infected with COVID-19 are contagious and how seriously affected they are by the disease, remains a matter of scientific debate.

The May 3 Sydney Morning Herald reported that a COVID-19 cluster began at Marist College in Auckland on March 22. By March 26, the number of infected staff and students had grown to 11, including the principal, 6 other staff members and 4 students. To date, 94 people trace their infection to the school.

Safe workplaces essential

Many teachers and others who work in schools are quite troubled about whether their workplaces are safe. Many education workers are older: the largest percentile of teachers are older than 50. We know that age can be a risk factor for COVID-19.

To ensure that educational settings are safe, once the remote teaching period ends, there must be frequent, thorough cleaning of schools. Testing of staff and students must also be available, as well as appropriate personal protective equipment, hand sanitiser and detergent for hand washing.

Social distancing in schools is also crucial. This will be achieved by having a ratio of 8 students to 1 teacher, as specified by the Victorian Education Department. Schools will require more funds to employ casual teachers, if class sizes are to be reduced. Furthermore, no education worker should be forced to physically attend their workplace if it is not safe.

These measures should be maintained until there is clear evidence that the COVID-19 virus poses no threat.

The hiring of more teachers and education support staff is also vital to ensure that students who have disengaged during the remote learning phase can be supported. Students may also require additional academic or emotional assistance. Year 12 students in particular will be looking for a great deal of teacher time and support. Adjustments to assessment tasks, examinations and the ATAR will be necessary.

COVID-19 has focused attention on the serious inequities in the education system. Teacher unions have long campaigned for smaller class sizes and reduced teacher allotments (the number of classes a teacher has). Now is an important time to implement this.

Smaller classes will assist students, allow for effective social distancing and for hiring casual teachers, who otherwise would have no income. In the longer term, governments must employ teachers and support staff on a permanent basis. Casualisation of the workforce is exploitative and disastrous for workers.

[Mary Merkenich, David Linden and Vivian Messimeris are teachers based in Victoria and NSW.]

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