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As the federal government pushes for schools around the country to reopen, many teachers are concerned about poor communication and fear for their health and safety. By Max Opray.

Teachers fear for health and safety

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.
Credit: AAP Image / James Ross

As an immunocompromised primary school teacher juggling care of her own at-risk child at home with the preparation of online-learning classes for hundreds of students, Tina faces many challenges in this moment. But there’s one in particular she can’t quite get over.

“The biggest hurdle for me has been communication,” she tells The Saturday Paper, using a pseudonym as she fears criticising the Queensland Department of Education will breach her code of conduct. “Be it the federal government or the school, there really hasn’t been much coming from either.”

As late as Thursday, Tina still hadn’t been told whether she would be expected to teach face to face when Queensland schools begin a staggered return on Monday.

“I don’t know what school going back means for my job, because my ‘vulnerable’ status hasn’t changed,” she says. “I don’t know what my teaching will look like as my students generally have to share resources. I don’t know if I will continue to deliver online while another teacher takes the role of face to face.”

The Queensland Department of Education did not respond to questions about management of vulnerable staff or those with at-risk family members. According to its website, schools will “manage staffing allocations as they normally do” in cases of illness.

In a state where Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton accused Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk of pandering to a “militant” teachers’ union in keeping kids out of class, Tina feels as though her safety isn’t a priority in the national Covid-19 effort.

Her anxiousness is shared by teachers across the country, according to the Australian Education Union (AEU), as schools accelerate their reopening plans on the back of strong national progress in suppressing the spread of the virus.

New South Wales will join Queensland in a staggered reopening on Monday, with the ACT a week after that. Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory have already returned.

AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe tells The Saturday Paper the union has been contacted by a wide range of members over concerns that governments and schools are struggling to meet their own guidelines for social distancing and hygiene.

“All employees who are vulnerable should be supported to work remotely for their health and wellbeing,” she says.

For staff working onsite, Haythorpe wants sufficient supplies of cleaning products, plus personal protective equipment for teachers and support staff working with vulnerable students.

The return to face-to-face learning proved most contentious in Western Australia, where in late April the State School Teachers’ Union of WA took out a full-page advertisement calling for students to keep away from schools, prompting the Labor state government to publish a full-page ad of its own urging the opposite.

Bronwyn White, the principal of Halls Head College near Mandurah, south of Perth, sent a letter to parents asking children to stay home if possible, warning the school lacked the space to apply physical distancing requirements and did not have enough cleaning supplies to meet safety needs.

Shortly thereafter, she was stood down from her job. Only after retracting her statement was she reinstated on Thursday.

Western Australia’s Education minister, Sue Ellery, advised The Saturday Paper that the state’s decision to reopen schools was informed by the recommendations of the Australian health protection principal committee (AHPPC), which is made up of chief health officers from the federal government and each state and territory. The state’s approach to vulnerable staff is also informed by the committee.

“If staff fall into any of those categories, they have been asked to seek medical advice and advise their principals,” she said. “Principals have been minimising the risks through making alternative arrangements for these staff, which may include working from home.”

But concern about schools reopening isn’t limited to teachers. A Guardian Essential poll this week found that while there was growing support for easing restrictions across the economy, opinions about schools were more divided. Half of the 1093 respondents agreed that schools should teach most students remotely until the Covid-19 outbreak passes.

The federal government has been consistent in pushing states to reopen schools, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison continuing on the theme at a press conference after Tuesday’s national cabinet meeting.

Morrison argued the economic impact of leaving schools shut and forcing workers to care for children at home outweighed a limited risk of infections, citing Treasury estimates that school closures for six months would cost about 300,000 jobs.

“Kids going back to school lifts productivity, helps people get back to work and helps the economy get back on its feet,” he said.

Despite the prime minister’s urgings, on Monday most students from Victoria and Tasmania appear set to stay at home rather than join their interstate counterparts in class, although face-to-face learning is available for those who need it.

Victoria’s cautiousness in particular sparked pointed criticism from the federal government, with Education Minister Dan Tehan declaring last weekend that Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews had exhibited a “failure of leadership” on the matter – a statement Tehan was forced to walk back.

Victoria’s Minister for Education James Merlino signals he will stay the course. “If you can learn from home, you must learn from home,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “We have said many times that if we can reduce the number of cases, then we have options when it comes to lifting restrictions – but as we have seen in other parts of the world, this situation can change rapidly. Remote and flexible learning is expected to continue for all of term 2.”

The Victorian government’s decision-making on this matter, as with the other states, is informed by AHPPC recommendations, but also by state-based epidemiology. Additionally the state, which is still working to contain outbreaks, is ramping up testing to inform future decisions.

The NSW Department of Health said its decision to reopen schools was informed by in-progress research by the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS).

Associate Professor Nick Wood of NCIRS says the ongoing study examined 15 schools in NSW, and preliminary findings indicate only two positive cases of transmission from 18 infected students and staff. “NCIRS will continue to monitor school-based cases closely with NSW Health and offer expanded testing and follow-up in term 2 as children return to schools for face-to-face learning in a carefully planned way,” Wood tells The Saturday Paper.

Wood notes that NCIRS findings are echoed by international studies indicating the virus generally does not affect children as badly as adults, and is not as easily transmitted by them.

That includes a study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases that found a nine-year-old boy who contracted Covid-19 in France did not pass the virus on despite coming into contact with more than 170 people.

On Tuesday, chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said the evidence was compelling that younger children don’t transmit as readily, but noted “we don’t know why”.

He expects a return to school will result in a manageable amount of new infections, particularly from adult-to-adult transmission. “We don’t believe there is significant transmission from children, so we have done no modelling on that,” he said.

Yet medical understanding of the virus is still evolving, with a German study released last week warning viral loads in children and adults do not differ significantly, prompting the country’s chief virologist Christian Drosten to warn “children may be as infectious as adults”.

Even less understood is an extremely rare disease in children causing inflammation of multiple organs and blood vessels that has been linked to Covid-19 in the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. Wood said an NCIRS-led monitoring effort has found no clear connection to Covid-19 yet.

In regard to vulnerable adults, the AHPPC recommends that teachers and staff who fall into at-risk categories should take additional care to protect themselves, and arrange to work from home where possible. It does not recommend PPE or widescale temperature-checking for schools.

The AEU is not convinced schools will meet AHPPC recommendations. “The chief medical officers have set out guidelines for the safety of staff in schools,” Haythorpe says. “However we are not reassured that all state and territory governments have put in the safety measures needed for a full return to face-to-face tuition.”

She is also concerned about how schools expect to manage social distancing for adults if they return to full capacity. The politics surrounding the issue have not been helpful, in her mind.

“The mixed messages coming from the federal government about schools and social distancing requirements has been very unhelpful and caused unnecessary anxiety for our members,” she says.

As Tina awaits the news of what kind of classroom environment she faces next week, the primary school teacher is inclined to agree. “No consultation, no respect, no clarity in their messaging, no proof of what they’re saying,” she says of the federal government.

With viral transmission suppressed across most of Australia, and most states falling into line, the Morrison government has leapt over plenty of hurdles in its mission to reopen schools. But with the public still confused and teachers feeling their safety has been overlooked, its message may be lost on those it needs to persuade.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2020 as "Class wars".

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Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.