Premiers under growing pressure to close nation’s schools

Parents are pulling their children out of schools, but authorities say that may do more harm than good.

Parents are pulling their children out of schools, but authorities say that may do more harm than good. Photo: Getty

State premiers and chief medical officers are resisting growing calls to shut Australia’s schools as the deadly coronavirus spreads.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said closing schools might do more harm than good.

“I know many, many parents are anxious, they’re concerned, and I know to a certain extent it’s a bit counterintuitive that schools remain open,” he said on Tuesday.

“But the advice is, closing schools now – that’s not to say they won’t close at some stage in the future – but if we were to close them now, across the board, that could make a very difficult set of circumstances even worse.

“It could do more harm than good.”

Another 23 cases of COVID-19 were been recorded in Victoria overnight on Monday, taking the state’s total number of positive tests to 94.

One of them was a teacher at Toorak Primary School in Melbourne’s inner south-east. It closed for at least 24 hours from Tuesday after confirmation of the infection.

And while schools in general have been told to remain open, some private schools – including Ballarat Grammar, Carey Baptist Grammar School, Loreto Mandeville Hall, St Kevin’s and Yeshiva-Beth Rivkah College – have shut their gates regardless.

In NSW, the teachers’ union said misinformation and a lack of support was putting NSW educators at risk amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

NSW Teachers Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos said the state government needed to provide clearer messaging for schools and institutions as many struggled with a lack of resources and poor cleaning practices.

He also said the implementation of social distancing measures was difficult for many NSW schools due to overcrowding.

“So far the advice on coronavirus has been conflicting, contradictory and impossible,” Mr Gavrielatos said on Tuesday.

“It is unacceptable that our schools, teachers and principals are left carrying the can with respect to what should be a government responsibility.”

Parents should exercise their own discretion when deciding whether to send their children to school, Mr Gavrielatos added. That came amid anecdotal reports of many parents option to withdraw their children from schools – with attendance rates in some classrooms this week as low as 50 per cent.

Macquarie University in Sydney’s northwest confirmed on Monday a student had been diagnosed with COVID-19. The student is receiving appropriate care, the university said in a statement.

Campus areas were “intensively cleaned” overnight.

The university had earlier on Tuesday announced the suspension of classes from March 18 with teaching to resume on March 30.

Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton said the decision not to close schools was based on how the coronavirus presented in children, and to avoid busy health and emergency workers being forced to look after their children.

It comes despite the federal government’s ban on non-essential mass gatherings of more than 500 people.

Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said the advice was that it was best to close schools closer to the peak of the infection.

If government schools were forced to shut, teachers would continue to be paid and would keep working on their laptops, he said.

Some of Victoria’s biggest universities are moving classes online after a state of emergency was declared in Victoria to deal with the spread of COVID-19.

From Tuesday, La Trobe, Monash and Swinburne universities have suspended classes for the week to allow staff to prepare for online learning.

West Australian Premier Mark McGowan also resisted renewed calls to close schools and shut down parliament, which would be an “absolute last resort”.

“I want our society to continue to function,” he said on Tuesday.

Queensland Education Minister Grace Grace told state parliament on Tuesday that the state’s government and independent schools were working together during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Queensland state schools will remain open until further notice,” Ms Grace said.

“If there is a need to close individuals schools these decisions will be made quickly based on further advice from health experts.”

Any school that needed to close following confirmation of a case of the lethal coronavirus would remain shut until Queensland Health could complete contact tracing, she said.

School gatherings including assemblies and fetes should also be cancelled to quell the surge of the virus.

-with AAP

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