Australia’s education system and whether children should be going to school during the coronavirus pandemic has been a major source of debate between state and federal politicians.
- Teachers are concerned about whether it is safe to return to their physical workplace as the global pandemic continues
- One teacher took heavy aim at the Prime Minister and levelled accusations that he and other politicians are acting as if they are more important than teachers
- Both high school teachers and students raised concerns about whether current students will receive the best education when they return to classrooms
States, especially Victoria have led the charge against it but Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy have remained firm that schools should remain open.
And on Monday night’s episode of Q+A it was the concerns of students and educators of all types of schooling that were front and centre.
One teacher in particular took aim at the Prime Minister, levelling an accusation that he was willing to put teachers at risk while protecting his fellow parliamentarians from coronavirus.
Karla Owen, a high school teacher from Melbourne sent her video question in for Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan — who joined the panel of Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth, NSW Department of Education Secretary Mark Scott, Whittlesea Secondary College principal Lian Davies and Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney Lisa Jackson Pulver — from his home.
“I have been following all the conflicting information about schools in the media,” Ms Owen said.
“Parliament originally stated they would sit in August but it’s been brought forward to mid-May, part of the reason for this was due to issues surrounding social distancing but ScoMo [Prime Minister Scott Morrison] has said all along schools are a safe place to be.
@QandA: Is the Government’s decision to keep schools open putting teachers lives at risk? #QandA
“What makes parliamentarians more important than me? They can social distance more easily than I can and they probably will but in schools this is certainly not the case.
“Mr Morrison came out last week and essentially berated and devalued teachers, this was a slap in the face to all teachers.
“Why is Mr Morrison putting teachers, one of the country’s most important resources in harm’s way? Why are we so expendable?”
Mr Tehan did not answer the question directly: why what was good for the parliamentary goose was not the same for the teaching gander?
Instead he focused on the importance of schooling and defended the Government stance on the necessity of having children at school and education continuing.
“All state and territory governments have been very conscious about the health and welfare of teachers and principals and teachers’ aides right across this nation,” Mr Tehan said.
“What we’ve done consistently right throughout this pandemic is taken the advice of the medical expert panel.
“And that advice has been consistent right throughout this pandemic, that it’s been safe for students to go to school and with the right protocols in place, it’s safe for teachers to go to school and teach students.
“That’s why it has been the consistent approach taken throughout this pandemic.”
Mr Tehan continued to talk up the Government response but was later cut off by host Macdonald to refer him back to the question, citing the PM imploring teachers to go back to school on April 15, when he said: “These children need you for our schools to remain open”.
However, the Education Minister took that differently to Ms Owen and insisted the Prime Minister had been nothing but supportive of teachers during the pandemic.
“When the Prime Minister was talking, he was speaking to teachers right across the nation and he was praising those teachers, who are teaching our children, he was reaching out to them directly and thanking them for the role they are playing.”
Is it safe to go back to school?
That stance was backed up by Dr Coatsworth who felt that studies showed it was safe to go back to school for all concerned.
This was in part due to low transmission rates of COVID-19 from children to adults, which he said were backed up by data..
“We are now is in a position where every single jurisdiction is in varying degrees considering their approach to restarting face to face teaching,” Dr Coatsworth said.
“We need to take a step back to the principle which is that schools are safe places because children don’t tend to get the disease as severely, they don’t tend to transmit the disease as much as adults and for whatever reason COVID-19 appears to be a disease where we need to be most worried about adults in the workplace, rather than children.”
It was an assertion that the only high school educator on the panel disagreed with, with Ms Davies of the opinion that teachers needed more assurances that their health was truly not at risk.
“I think we’ve got a little way to go to build some of that confidence,” Ms Davies said of how teachers feel about going back to the physical workplace
“I think there has to be more facts put out there and more discussion to be had in order to build that confidence.
“In order for teachers to feel confident coming into school, they need to know their health and welfare is being thought of as well.
“We are all there for the students and we are absolutely delighted that this does not seem to impact students in the way it’s impacting adults but we do have to take into consideration the school’s function because of those adults, and some of them are very vulnerable.”
What will school look like?
Every year there seems to be a conversation about whether Year 12 students need stress about the HSC and whether good marks in it are the be-all and end-all, but for this year’s crop of students the situation is different.
Two students were featured on a longer format video piece talking about their concerns and whether face-to-face teaching being rolled out slowly would actually help them.
But it was a long-time educator who truly had doubts about how any system would work with social distancing protocols in place.
“It’s been without a doubt the greatest challenge of my career. I’ve been in teaching now for 26 years and it’s been quite devastating,” Cumberland High School principal Michelle said in a pre-recorded segment about teaching in the pandemic.
But it’s what happens when face-to-face learning resumes that has her mystified.
“Looking at the logistics, that would mean 14 classes at school on a particular given day. 10 students in each classroom, approximately 34 teachers,” she said.
“33.6 teachers, to manage or supervise the 14 classes. 14 teachers would be teaching 10 of their students. 24 kids on average in each classroom.
“How do I choose which 10 kids stay with their classroom teacher and then the other 10 and the other four moving to a different classroom, who will still be doing the online learning with the actual teacher two classes down? How is that going to work?”
Macdonald simply opined “this sounds crazy”, perhaps summing up how difficult secondary education is right now in Australia.