THE PROFESSIONAL AND INDUSTRIAL VOICE OF QUEENSLAND’S TEACHERS AND SCHOOL LEADERS IN STATE SCHOOLS AND TAFE FOR MORE THAN 130 YEARS.

Time for some fact checking on COVID-19 and schools

QTU President's comment 21 April 2020

Certain commentators are now blaming teachers, principals and their unions for state government decisions to limit student attendance at schools, some even going so far as to argue it is a party-political vendetta against individual leaders. 

This kind of fear-mongering seems to be aimed at distracting people from what is a very straightforward reality: limiting student attendance at schools, combined with social distancing and good hygiene practices, is all about the health and safety of students and school staff and supporting the ongoing community efforts to suppress COVID-19 infections.

In the face of a pandemic like this, it’s important that the facts be heard. 

Who has decided to keep schools open but limit student attendance?

State governments have the constitutional responsibility for running schools in Australia. Only the Minister for Education and the Director-General of Education can make decisions about parameters for Queensland school operations. The decisions taken in Queensland align completely with the seven principles for school education agreed by all the state and territory leaders and the Prime Minister in a National Cabinet meeting on Thursday 16 April 2020. Of significance are principles 3 and 7:

3.  Our schools must be healthy and safe environments for students, teachers and other staff to ensure the effective and efficient delivery of education to students.

7.  The health advice consistently provided by the AHPPC is that attendance at a school campus for education represents a very low health risk to students. The advice also notes that appropriate practices must be employed at schools, like at other workplaces, to provide a safe working environment for school staff, including teachers, and that the specific AHPPC advice* regarding school campuses should be followed.

* https://www.health.gov.au/news/australian-health-protection-principal-committee-ahppc-advice-on-reducing-the-potential-risk-of-covid-19-transmission-in-schools

Teachers, principals and their unions do not make decisions about when schools will open or the circumstances under which they will operate. The QTU will continue to advocate for our members and for students to achieve the safest return to school possible.

Why can’t schools be open for all students?

In the rapidly changing directives from governments during this COVID-19 crisis, a few core medically advised principles have remained consistent in the recent past. To help prevent the spread of infection, strict adherence to a range of behaviours is essential:

1. Social distancing

2. Preventing “mass” gatherings (the number of people which constitutes a “mass” has reduced over time)

3. Heightened personal hygiene

4. Avoiding contact with surfaces (which is why, for example, public libraries and playgrounds have closed)

5. Self-isolation by vulnerable people.

You do not have to work in a school to realise that these principles are physically impossible to follow in a “business as usual” school environment. They are only possible if student numbers are significantly reduced, and vulnerable education workers are protected from unnecessary contact with people and places.

Remote learning gives parents a choice to keep their children away from school, and not force those parents who are concerned to physically send their children to school in order to keep learning. The QTU acknowledges that this is an unresolved issue for teachers and principals who, as essential workers themselves, are worried for their own children who must attend school. This concern is exacerbated by the decision of the state government that most teachers will be working from their usual school rather than working from home.

“There is more chance of winning lotto than getting COVID-19…”

One of the most dangerous pieces of misinformation being spouted at this time is that because infection rates are low everything should immediately go back to normal including schools being open to all. The drastic measures being enforced by governments across Australia, led by the decisions of the National Cabinet, have played a critical role in suppressing the rates of infection across the community. What the Ruby Princess and Tasmanian hospital examples show us is that even seemingly minor issues such as misleading authorities about movement around the community can have disastrous effects on the rate of infection and deaths caused by COVID-19. Exiting severe restrictions too early, especially with large scale changes like allowing all students to return to school rather than learning from home, may have deadly consequences and our national governments are right to resist this ill-informed commentary.

"Learning from home is not real learning" and "our children will miss a year of schooling"

If not for COVID-19 then students would be at school learning as normal. If not for COVID-19 our lives would be very different. COVID-19 is a real issue that will be with us for a significant part of our immediate future and downplaying that fact will do nothing but diminish the effectiveness of any response in the long term. The whole education system has pivoted to providing remote learning at home for most students. The absolute professionalism of teachers, principals and school support staff lies at the heart of the transformation of our education system from school-based learning to blended remote learning from the home and matched learning for some at school to ensure that essential workers, including educators, can continue to work and vulnerable children are safe. Queensland students deal with natural disasters every year. Students around the world are denied normal access to schools for a variety of reasons and over various periods of time. What educators know is that young people are incredibly resilient and, with strong support from school and at home, they can and will make up for any disruption.

The new way of educating young Queenslanders has created genuine hardship for many. Teachers, principals and school support staff are putting in a huge effort to keep things running in a constantly changing environment. Parents are dealing with challenges in their working lives and at home and doing a fantastic job of creating stability for their families. We can only continue to do these things where we work together. Flailing about blaming people for the consequences of the virus serves no positive purpose. Schools will return to normal when the time is right.

Kevin Bates
QTU President

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