01/05/2020 - 10:42

School standoff as new term starts

01/05/2020 - 10:42

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Some in WA’s education sector remain at odds over how and when to reopen schools, as the state takes steps to relax its strict social distancing policies.

School standoff as new term starts
The federal and state governments told parents to keep their children at home in late March. Photo: Stockphoto

Some in WA’s education sector remain at odds over how and when to reopen schools, as the state takes steps to relax its strict social distancing policies.

Mark McGowan appeared resolute on March 18 as he made a series of announcements regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

With just 35 confirmed cases of the virus in Western Australia, Mr McGowan was sombre, as he confirmed the state would ban all non-essential travel and cap public gatherings to 100 people.

“This is an issue the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetimes,” the premier said.

“This isn’t an issue that any of us, especially me, wanted to be dealing with, but here we are, and it’s something we will continue to manage to the best of our abilities.”

While making it clear he was willing to escalate measures if necessary, Mr McGowan split the difference on what to do with schools.

Noting that there was a national agreement in place to keep schools open, the premier left no doubt about the cost of closing schools, noting it would remove essential healthcare employees from the workforce as well as expose elderly relatives to the virus if they needed to act as guardians.

As the situation progressed over the following week, though, both the state and federal governments began relaxing that stance until, finally, just one week after all but ruling it out, Mr McGowan told parents to keep their kids at home where possible.

That move, alongside increasingly stringent restrictions on social gatherings and domestic travel, has been acknowledged by the medical community as instrumental to WA flattening the rate of new infections in the past month.

Now, with the state regularly recording days without any new infections, Mr McGowan has sought to unwind partial school closures, instructing public schools to offer face-to-face learning at the start of term two last week.

That WA is in such a position is enviable.

In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews has said remote learning will continue indefinitely, as the state battles to contain outbreaks of community transmission of COVID-19.

Tasmania, which has also struggled to contain the virus in some locales, will continue with remote learning until further notice.

Those states in a position to offer in-person learning face challenges of their own.

NSW, for example, will reopen schools, but will do so with staggered start times, at first offering just one day a week of face-to-face learning.

In Queensland, confrontation between the state government and its teachers’ union over school’s reopening had led the latter to threaten industrial action if classes were to resume as normal in term two.

Premier Anastasia Palacszuk has said the state would continue with reduced class sizes for the time being.

WA’s schools have not been similarly affected as of yet, with Mr McGowan indicating that about 60 per cent of students returned to class on the first day of term two, according to a Department of Education survey.

Many in the state’s education sector, including private schools and the state’s teacher’s union, have expressed concerns with the move, however.

Mark McGowan has consistently framed school closures as a last resort to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Nowhere has that tension been more pronounced than in the state’s private and independent schools.

Many had shut their doors in late March to transition to online learning, and have this term decided against resuming face-to-face classes in full.

That move has provoked a broader discussion around whether private schools should charge full fees to parents, with Mr McGowan having said parents would be within their rights to ask for a reduction in school fees if their children weren’t being taught face to face.

Some schools, such as Penrhos College, St Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls, and Guildford Grammar School, are offering face-to-face learning in term two.

While the federal government’s promise to bring forward $3 billion in funding to private schools if they resume face-to-face learning could incentivise them to reopen, entities such as the State School Teachers’ Union of WA have expressed deeper misgivings over the safety of teachers in the classroom.

In a recent survey of its members, the union found more than 70 per cent of teachers were not confident the government was considering their health and wellbeing in reopening schools in term two.

Two thirds said they felt either extremely or somewhat unsafe in the classroom this term.

Federal and state governments have said schools were safe and that the risk of children transmitting COVID-19 was low.

However, children are not required to follow physical distancing rules required in most workplaces, with only adults advised to follow those procedures when at school.

If schools were to follow such policies, either through staggered start times or reduced class sizes, the survey suggested more than 70 per cent of teachers would feel safer in the classroom.

Those findings come on top of the debate about whether teachers should be able to access personal protective equipment in the classroom.

The state and federal governments have both said such a move was unnecessary, while opposition leader Liza Harvey, SSTUWA president Pat Byrne and Australian Medical Association of WA president Andrew Miller have all said teachers should be able to access PPE if necessary (Read more).

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