The Government says it has a solid health case for keeping schools open, but teachers and parents remain worried.
In the face of rising absenteeism — some schools are reporting plummeting attendance rates as parents keep their children home — Prime Minister Scott Morrison had a firm message for parents: keep your heads and send your kids to school.
The states have backed the Prime Minister, arguing the decision is based on science, not politics.
Why should we keep schools open?
The Government is taking its advice from a group called the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), the key decision-making committee for health emergencies.
It’s chaired by the Australian chief medical officer and consists of some of Australia’s best medical minds.
Before the Prime Minister announced schools will stay open, the committee delivered advice that “pre-emptive closures are not proportionate or effective as a public health intervention to prevent community transmission” of coronavirus.
It gave two main reasons.
First, and most importantly, it says children are at very low risk from coronavirus.
“In China, 2.4 per cent of total reported cases were under the age of 19 years old,” the committee wrote.
“Worldwide, of those cases under 19 years of age, very few were severe or critical.”
Secondly, that closing schools could have a crippling effect on the health sector and the economy more broadly.
“Studies have estimated that around 15 per cent of the total workforce and 30 per cent of the healthcare workforce may need to take time off work to care for children,” the committee advised.
“This burden will be significant and will fall disproportionately on those in casual or tenuous work circumstances.”
Government and experts are also worried about childcare responsibilities falling on grandparents who are more likely to be in the groups most vulnerable to coronavirus.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued the same warning.
“Longer closures may result in more students congregating outside of school (e.g. other students’ homes, shopping malls),” its report said.
“[This] will increase risk to older adults or those with co-morbidities.”
The Government has also pointed to Singapore as an example of why schools should stay open.
It says Singapore represents the ‘gold standard’ in fighting coronavirus.
Singapore kept schools open while keeping the rate of infection much lower than most other countries.
Why should we close schools down?
Some doctors have pointed out key differences between Australia and countries like Singapore that have kept schools operating.
Singapore had school holidays for part of the time the virus was spreading. When school returned, it began temperature-testing students as they arrived and left each day.
More than 70 countries have made the decision to shut schools down.
They include the UK, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson — one of the last hold-outs in Europe against the move — now says closing schools will place “further downward pressure on the upward curve” of the virus’s spread.
In Australia, some independent schools have shut down and shifted lessons online. Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop, Anthony Fisher, has since written to NSW and ACT bishops to say the Government was disappointed that had happened.
There’s a simple reason schools are closing: even though kids do not seem to suffer severe effects when they contract the virus, they can contract and spread it.
There’s not really enough evidence to know precisely the role children play in spreading the virus, but many parents fear they could easily contract it at school and bring it home, putting relatives at risk.
Australian absentee rates show many parents are worried about that happening here too.
It’s particularly concerning for families where someone in the home is over 70, pregnant, has a chronic health condition or is immunocompromised.
Some parents are finding the messaging confusing: these groups are advised to socially isolate, but feel that could be undone by their children being exposed at school, or on their way to school or back home.
Some teachers, too, feel the advice is contradictory.
This is why: the committee’s advice recommends social-distancing measures at schools, to reduce the risk of transmission — but teachers say social distancing is difficult to achieve in practice.
Assemblies and sport may have been cancelled, but children are still working together in classrooms and socialising at recess and lunchtime.
The committee’s advice does not specifically address teachers who are in high-risk groups because of their age or underlying health conditions.
Nor does it mention teachers with vulnerable family members at home
That has some teachers feeling like “sacrificial lambs”, one Victorian teacher told the ABC.
It could be a particularly nervous time for those teachers who have complained they’re running short of sanitiser and soap.
Is there another option?
Norway, England and Belgium are sending most students home for remote learning, but keeping campuses open to supervise the children of health workers and other emergency staff.
In fact, they’re actually staying open later so parents working in hospitals can keep dealing with the crisis.
Some health sector leaders here have called for this model to be adopted in Australia if schools do shut down.
Teachers also want educators who meet the at-risk criteria to be able to work from home.
Teachers’ unions told Education Department heads that pregnant, older and at-risk teachers should be immediately sent home.
“We’ve certainly made representations,” said Angelo Gavrielatos, the president of the NSW Teachers Federation.
“We expect the Government to make a quick announcement with respect to those more vulnerable members.
“These are unprecedented times, and now is the time for the Government to demonstrate its obligations to the health and wellbeing of all its employees.”
Could Australian schools still shut down?
The AHPCC says it’s evaluating its advice every day.
At state government level, premiers and chief ministers are feeling pressure directly from parents, and they’re worried about lots of families keeping their kids home.
Any change in policy would be taken by the new national cabinet of state and federal governments.
The Education Minister, Dan Tehan, is remaining firm on keeping schools open for now though, telling the ABC that Australia was acting more quickly than other countries and the virus had not spread as far here as it had in Europe.
“It’s incredibly important, at this time, that we listen to this medical advice and that we take it. That is how we will get through this,” he said.
“I know it is uncertain times for these teachers and principals who are providing this education, but it’s so important that we’re providing that education to our children.”
original source: Abc