School Closures: Not So Open and Shut

This blog is part of a series relating to the economic impacts of the COVID-19, novel coronavirus outbreak of 2020.

Despite the frequent unveiling of new measures to slow the spread of coronavirus, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has continued to keep Australian schools open during the pandemic. This decision, at odds with other mandatory social distancing measures, has left many people confused about the “mixed messages” as to whether children should remain in school. This anxiety has been aggravated by the fact that Scott Morrison’s own children have been absent from school for over a week due to an alleged illness, an issue he has routinely evaded by stating they are still “enrolled”. To further compound the issue, Victoria and ACT have decided to close schools as of Tuesday 24 March, while NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared schools would remain open but “encouraged parents to keep their children home to home to contain the spread of coronavirus.”

Scott Morrison claimed there has been “no change” in advice from health officials as to whether children should remain in school. Morrison likened his own decision to that of Singapore, which has managed to contain the virus despite keeping schools open. What he failed to mention, however, is that Singapore schools have implemented strict hand washing measures and routine temperature checks while Australian schools run shockingly low on hygiene products.

Two main factors inform Morrison’s decision to forgo school closures: the severity of COVID-19 in children and the possible economic impacts of school closures.

Experts have long emphasised how people under the age of 18 are significantly less susceptible to coronavirus. In a study of nearly 45,000 confirmed COVID-19 patients, no deaths were reported in children under 10 years old. Although children may not be at risk of suffering severe effects from COVID-19, they are still able to contract and spread the virus. The incubation period for COVID-19 is 14 days, which means that a child – or any person – who contracts the virus may not show symptoms for up to 14 days after exposure. There is significant risk of spreading the virus during this time which is extended if the carrier has a mild or asymptomatic case. This possibility is “particularly concerning for families where someone in the home is over 70, pregnant, has a chronic health condition or is immunocompromised”. Furthermore, the Commonwealth has offered no advice to teachers who are in high-risk groups on how to move forward during this time. With many schools reporting shortages of soap and hand sanitiser, it is no wonder why some teachers say they feel they are being made into “sacrificial lambs”.

Morrison has said repeatedly that closing schools “would seriously impact and disrupt the health workforce that is needed to save lives”. According to the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), “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”. Furthermore, Morrison declared “tens of thousands of jobs could be lost, if not more” if schools were to shut down. While the AHPPC recommends social distancing measures be enforced at schools, many teachers say this is difficult to achieve in reality. Assemblies and sporting activities have been cancelled but children are still studying in classrooms, with average class sizes ranging between 23.926.5 students, as well as socialising during recess and lunch breaks.

The Commonwealth continually states that the advice from experts is to keep schools open, but Dr Andrew Miller, President of WA’s Australian Medical Association, urged for an immediate closure of all schools and slammed the government’s “constantly changing” advice on the matter. Nicholas A. Christakis, Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University, outlined that “school closures are one of the most beneficial ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’ (NPI) that can be employed, more effective even than reactive quarantines or banning of public gatherings.” This is partially due to the fact that school closures often result in parents staying home as well, significantly reducing the possible spread of coronavirus. For parents who cannot take time off work to stay home, whether due to financial or professional obligations, the NSW Teachers Federation and the Australian Education Union have noted the effectiveness of UK Government’s strategy of allowing ‘essential’ workers to send their children to school. “In the UK, schools are being kept as empty as possible. Flexible arrangements are in place for school staff to ensure effective minimum supervision and the further ongoing development of online educational material for students not at schools,” said the NSW Teachers Federation.

While the NSW Teachers Federation has demanded state-wide school closures if safety measures for staff continue to be ignored, many NSW school officials remain adamant that changes to school structures and schedules are unnecessary. NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) chairman Peter Shergold declared that “the HSC is going ahead in NSW this year, no ifs, no buts”. While this was likely an effort to urge students to continue studying, Shergold’s punitive rhetoric does little to assure students that their mental and physical health is being considered and cared for by the officials ostensibly responsible for their educational wellbeing.

Despite the Commonwealth’s claims that school closures are unnecessary, some Australian parents have decided to remove their kids from school anyway. Within NSW, the number of students physically attending state schools dropped from 74 percent on Monday 23 March to 40 percent the following day. Backing her decision to keep her son home from Secondary College, Tracy Keogh said, “I’m not waiting for a directive from a government that are behind the rest of the world in containment measures.”

The challenge of not sending students to school and relying on online learning has the assumption
of equal access to computers and internet. For some in the community, this is not the case and ordinary coping mechanism of using publicly available systems (such as closed public libraries) are not available. With the loss of employment by parents or carers, the cost of online access may be an expense they may not be able to afford particularly given the high data usage of online video streaming and/or having multiple users. The other factor(s) in this discussion are the assumptions of available study space in the home, having an environment supportive or conducive to studying, and having appropriate supervision. For the year 12 students, ranging in age from 16 to 18, the challenges of moving from face to face supported learning to online within a very short period of time is most tasking. This is made more demanding without having access to teachers, coaches, libraries, tutors, or peer-assisted learnings. The academic, mental and emotional toll needs to be noted for a most fragile group.

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