Schools Re-opening Sparks Confusion, Distress & Debate

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

With the second school term having resumed in all states, debates have reopened regarding whether schools should resume face-to-face learning and whether doing so will threaten the progress made by existing coronavirus containment measures.

Under the Australian Constitution, states and territories are responsible for delivering school education to all school-age children. These governments determine curricula, assessments, teacher training and course accreditation and are the main funding bodies of government (public) schools. The Commonwealth government, on the other hand, is responsible for providing financial assistance to students and funding private and independent schools and higher education institutions. As such, the decision on whether public schools are to reopen for on-campus learning to all students is in the hands of state and territory governments. 

Each state and territory has a different plan for how they will approach this decision.

NSW: Schools have remained open but attendance fell to 5% during the first week of April. Starting the week of 11 May, schools will implement a staggered return to face-to-face learning. The phases are as follows:

Phase 1: children in school 1 day per week.

Phase 2: children in school 2 days per week.

Phase 3: children in school 5 days per week with social distancing measures enforced.

Phase 4: children in school 5 days per week with full school activities and no social distancing measures.

VIC: Most students will continue to be educated remotely. Face-to-face learning will be available for those who do not have a suitable at-home learning environment, and laptops and internet will be provided for students in need.

QLD: Remote learning will continue for the first five weeks of term two. The government will reevaluate the situation on May 15 and will likely reintroduce onsite learning in a staggered way, similar to NSW.

SA: Parents can choose to keep children at home, but schools are open and students are encouraged to attend. Term two began earlier this week, and students who engaged in remote learning experienced widespread difficulties with the online system.

WA: All schools are open and students are encouraged to attend, particularly those in year 11 and 12. However, parents may choose to keep their children at home. The situation will be reviewed before May 18, the start of week four.

ACT: Similar to Victoria’s policies, ACT public schools will be open for children who do not have access to a suitable learning environment at home but most students will be educated remotely.

TAS: Parents and teachers are prepared to continue distance education, but those who need to send children to school are still allowed to do so.

NT: Children are to attend in-person learning unless contacted by their school with explicit alternative arrangements, or if parents contact the school having made at-home learning arrangements for their child.

The Commonwealth government has repeatedly advocated for all schools to remain open amid the coronavirus pandemic, declaring that closing schools is not only unnecessary but dangerous. Dr Zoë Hyde, on the other hand, wrote a Twitter thread detailing why schools should remain closed. As discussed in a previous blog, the competing advice has been a source of widespread confusion throughout the pandemic. This has been further complicated by several cases of young children contracting COVID-19. In March, four infants in Victoria aged one and under were diagnosed with the virus, as well as several toddlers and school-age children throughout the rest of the country over the last month. Most recently, a four-year-old child in NSW tested positive on April 29 after attending daycare for at least two days while infected, causing the childcare centre to close. Another learning centre in Victoria has closed while awaiting the test results of two children who displayed symptoms of COVID-19. This news comes just a few weeks after the government announced it would provide free childcare until the end of the financial year, which we covered previously. Funded by a $1.3 billion stimulus package, the initiative came as an attempt to keep childcare centres open after they experienced substantial declines in enrolment due to the coronavirus. Childcare centres across the country have been able to remain open, but the initiative was, perhaps, too effective – many centres have struggled to meet the increased demand and have had to turn away families in need due to lack of resources. As a result, parents and staff are pleading for “more guidance from the Government” during this time of crisis.

Corinne Haythorpe, president of the Australian Teacher’s Union, said that rather than attempting to fast-track school re-openings and keep childcare centres functioning at a ‘normal’ capacity, a helpful response from the government would instead be to “manage parents’ expectations” regarding when students would return to campuses, explaining, “our schools are not shut, they are delivering remote learning, remote teaching and learning online for the majority of children across Australia, but the message has been very confusing in terms of what ‘open’ means”.

As funding for non-government schools falls under federal jurisdiction, Minister for Education Dan Tehan announced April 9 that independent and Catholic schools must reopen for term two or their funding will be cut. This demand was changed to an incentive on April 29 when Mr Tehan offered these schools up to 25% of their total annual funding if they met in-person teaching benchmarks. The funding incentive would be broken down into two 12.5% payments, the first of which would be contingent on schools opening campuses for term two and having a plan to fully reopen in-person teaching by June 1, and the second of which requires schools to have 50% of students doing in-person learning by June 1. In order to be eligible for the increased funding, schools must apply by May 1.

Independent schools have responded to this offer with mixed reactions. Citing decreasing enrolment rates paired with the fact that federal funding is based around census data generally taken in August, many non-government schools are worried that they will lose a substantial portion of income and funding, which makes the Commonwealth’s offer increasingly complicated.

Michelle Green, chief executive of Independent Schools Victoria, said the offer sets up schools to be in an “extraordinarily difficult and unfair position” as they have “just two days to decide if they are able to provide a safe workplace for their teachers and a safe learning environment for their students”. Citing the “conflicting advice from state and federal authorities”, she stated that independent schools were being objectified and weaponised “in a policy disagreement between the federal and Victorian governments”, which is “entirely inappropriate” and puts schools in an “impossible situation”. This sentiment was echoed by Dr Peter van Onselen, who Tweeted, “it seems to be all about trying to win an argument about schools returning rather than calmly assessing what should or shouldn’t happen, and let independent schools make their own independent assessments”. Christian Schools Australia director of public policy, Mark Spencer, said that “the declaration was unnecessary and disheartening, following on the back of that announcement that schools could not access the lower threshold for JobKeeper payments that applies to other charities”. Here, Spencer is referring to the fact that independent schools have to prove a 30% decrease in revenue to qualify for the subsidies rather than the 15% revenue decrease threshold that was afforded to other charities.

David Mulford, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council of Australia, embraced Mr Tehan’s offer, saying it was “not a handout” but rather a “matter of adjusting the timing of one of the regular scheduled payments” and that non-government schools “remain supportive of the government’s intention to reopen schools in a timely manner”.

The Government’s offer for independent schools was met with outrage from many Australians. Maurie Mulheron noted that private schools already receive “80% of additional Federal funding compared to just 20% for public schools”, while Mike Carlton commented, “billions of dollars advanced to private schools… while state schools are struggling to get hand sanitizer and clean toilets”. Dr Christine Cunningham pointed out possible financial incentives, saying, “the economy can’t reopen until schools do completely and that’s the ONLY reason this experiment with student and teachers health is happening”, which was echoed by Johnny Miller, who Tweeted, “how dare these pretentious #Liberals, who have championed outrageous increases in public funding of elitist private schools, for decades, now use the cover of ‘lifelong harm and widening inequality’ in education, to justify a premature kickstarting of their precious economy”.

The economic costs of school closures is a significant factor in the Commonwealth’s desire to reopen schools as early as possible. A study by Viner et al. (2020) analysed school closures during pandemics in terms of their economic costs and effectiveness as containment measures. The economic costs are very high due to parents needing to stay home from work to supervise their children, a matter known as forced absenteeism. Approximately 16% of the workforce are the primary caregivers for children, and this number rises to 30% in the health and social care industries – two industries in which staff are facing disproportionately high demands due to the coronavirus pandemic. The most cost-effective containment measures for schools are selective closures rather than blanket closures. While data from the COVID-19 outbreak is inconclusive regarding the extent that school closures contributed to the overall containment of coronavirus, modelling suggests school closures on their own only prevent 2-4% of deaths, much less than other distancing measures.

Another factor contributing the Government’s desire to reopen schools as quickly as possible comes from the idea that “learning is best done at school in a classroom with teachers”.  However, the results from widespread school closures following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake indicate that is not necessarily the case. Even though many students could not access online learning, their performances did not suffer; rather, their final exam marks actually increased as teachers focused more on essential content rather than getting through a dense curriculum. These results were also seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where students had to miss several weeks of school due to school closures. In this instance as well, students “recovered quickly and actually began to see gains in test scores”. This information may provide some solace for parents who are concerned that distance learning will impact their children’s abilities to engage and perform well in school.

It is no wonder that there is widespread confusion as to how parents and staff should proceed in the coming months. Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy insisted that social distancing in classrooms is unnecessary, yet social distancing laws remain in place throughout the rest of the country. Epidemiologist Dr Kathryn Snow stated that “many parents and teachers are finding the debate about schools confusing and stressful”, a sentiment echoed by Sydney parent Rose Thanh, who said, “kids are carriers, and I could be a carrier and we wouldn’t even know if we had the coronavirus. If he picks anything up from school, then we’re all done, I’d be impaired, it would just be a whole big thing in the house and we’d be restricted… I’m not too sure if I’m going to send him to school, but so far it seems like I’m going to keep him back.” Queensland parent Eddie Marano had a different response, explaining that if Queensland schools “adopted the WA model, parents I know wouldn’t be in tears trying to work full time at home and homeschool 5-6 year olds”.

The reality is that we are still not informed enough to make broad, sweeping statements about what is safe or not relating to coronavirus spread in our schools. The limited data that governments in Australia are using to make these decisions are by no means sufficient to be making such definitive statements regarding what is safe. The NSW government has relied on a study that traced contacts from just 9 students and 9 teachers with COVID-19 over just 1.5 incubation periods before the Premier advised non-attendance, testing only 1/3 of the people that they came into contact with. Of course we do not have access to the rigorous level of data that would be preferable but it is an insult to present this as a clear-cut matter when the only thing that is clear when it comes to COVID-19 is that nothing is clear. This is a complex issue and requires a level of public discourse that reflects and honours the range of perspectives and the realities of balancing economic, social and health concerns. How can we breed greater trust when these issues are treated as one-dimensional?

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