The union representing public school teachers in Western Australia has launched an advertising blitz against the State Government’s decision to reopen schools next week while citing safety fears over coronavirus.
- Parents have been encouraged to send children back to school in term two
- The Premier has cited national health advice but teachers are not convinced
- Catholic schools will only offer remote teaching for students up to year 10
In full page newspaper advertisements, the State School Teachers’ Union of WA urged parents to keep their children home, despite Premier Mark McGowan and Education Minister Sue Ellery insisting schools were open for business and encouraging students to attend from next week.
The union said measures such as physical distancing could not be carried out in schools when classrooms were full.
“We therefore encourage parents to continue to keep their children at home, if they are in a position to do so,” the advert read.
“This will help teachers to make schools as safe as possible for students and staff.”
The union was not available for comment on Friday morning, but in a statement it said its position was based on advice issued by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) issued on April 16.
That advice explicitly advises teachers and parents to maintain physical distancing from other adults.
But it also talks of how schools are adopting ways to practice physical distancing between students, including encouraging them to maintain 1.5 metres distance when entering or leaving a classroom and suspending group work if the activity cannot be modified to avoid close physical proximity of 1.5m.
No need to distance students at school, PM says
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday the 1.5m and 4 square metre rule was “not a requirement of the expert medical advice in classrooms”.
His office later released a statement saying the national cabinet — which comprises the Prime Minister and all state and territory premiers and chief ministers — agreed with updated AHPPC advice on schools.
“AHPPC noted that, among many measures, smaller class sizes might reduce the potential risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools,” it said.
“AHPPC does not believe however, that the ‘venue density rule’ of no more than one person per 4 square metres is appropriate or practical in classrooms or corridors, nor [is] maintaining 1.5m between students during classroom activities.”
The AHPPC also noted there was very limited evidence of transmission between children in the school environment and population screening overseas showed very low incidence of positive cases in school-aged children.
Minister says teachers must overcome fear
WA Education Minister Sue Ellery on Friday told 6PR Radio she was disappointed with the content of the advertisement as it was not an accurate description of the advice from the AHPPC.
“The advice has been from the beginning — and is now, because of the low risk of transmission — schools are safe for staff and students, and should stay open,” Ms Ellery said.
“[Teachers] need to put their fear to one side for a few moments and stop and read the advice, and actually look at what has happened.
“If that public health advice was not sound, and was not correct for schools, then back in the second half of March when we had students at school, when our daily cases of confirmed positives were increasing, when there were no border closures, when we did not have the additional cleaning in place, back then we would have started to see student-to-student and student-to-teacher [transmission].
“And we did not. If you did not believe the advice at the beginning — and I can understand it may have appeared like a mixed message or inconsistent — if you didn’t believe it at the beginning, you just have to look at the numbers and what happened since.”
Private schools reverse tack, support classroom return
For the first three weeks of term two, at public schools, students will have three options: attend face-to-face lessons, stay home to learn online, or stay home to learn with hard-copy packs.
Some private schools are now backing a return to class after previously advising children to stay home.
In a letter to parents, Guildford Grammar School said all families who felt comfortable sending their children to school could attend timetabled lessons.
The school said it had received confirmation from WA Chief Health Officer Andrew Robertson advising it was safe to do so.
Guildford said the advice was unexpected and acknowledged it was a shift from previous plans.
Hale School headmaster Dean Dell’Oro told Mix 94.5 Radio he also expected to see students back in the classroom.
The school planned to bring year 11 and 12 students back, along with pre-primary to year 2, with other year groups rotating attendance.
“The science is pretty clear — we should get students back,” he said.
“What’s the alternative? The mental health issues are pretty clear, recent studies have suggested there’s a lot of things that are going to happen if we don’t connect socially, so the science is pretty important here.”
Earlier this week, Catholic Education WA advised all its schools would adopt remote learning from kindergarten to Year 10 for at least the first four weeks of term.
Parents would be able to keep their children at home or send them to school to be supervised while they attend online classes.
Independents may transition back more slowly
Association of Independent Schools WA executive director Valerie Gould said schools had been working very hard to get ready for the new term.
“Things of course have changed a bit now with the public schools saying all public schools are open for students to attend,” she said.
“So some schools will be open for students to attend, some will continue with remote delivery for a couple of weeks with a view to transitioning over time.
“Part of that is because of all the effort that’s gone into delivering remote products, and to turn around and just throw all that out and start over again, it’s a lot of work for schools.”
Ms Ellery said she hoped the Prime Minister’s comments today would influence non-government schools.
“The advice today from the National Cabinet makes it easier for schools to manage the practicalities,” she said.
Premier warns ‘very low risk’ to staff, students
Mr McGowan this week ramped up pressure on Catholic Education, including suggesting they offer partial school fee refunds to parents to compensate for a lack of in-class learning.
He said he hoped the decision to only offer remote classes would be reconsidered.
“We’ve made the decision about public schools on the best of health and the best of education advice,” he said.
“The health advice is there is a very low … risk for staff and students by reopening schools.”
Ms Gould said many schools had already offered parents rebates and fee discounts, but that the cost of delivering online learning was not cheap.
“For many schools, they’ve had to get additional IT equipment, sometimes they’ve had to buy devices to send home,” she said.
“It’s not that it’s become cheaper for schools, it’s literally just changed what the expenses are.”
Health minister Roger Cook acknowledged there was a great deal of anxiety in the community about schools.
“I think people should take a great deal of comfort and confidence from the medical advice that is being received, both nationally and locally, and that is schools remain a very low public health risk, both to children and to teachers,” he said.
“The main risk in relation to the school environment is between the teachers.
“The low viral load on a lot of young people with this particular virus means the child-to-adult contraction is a very low occurrence.
“But I understand people are anxious and that’s why we’ve said parents may choose whether they send their kids to school in this particular period of time.”
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