Coronavirus: NSW to stagger school openings following report release

The government is encouraging all states to reopen schools, citing a report released on Sunday.

The government is encouraging all states to reopen schools, citing a report released on Sunday. Photo: AAP

New South Wales will open classrooms to all students from this week, cemented by a health report that details zero state student-to-teacher COVID-19 infections.

Other states should follow suit, a leading health expert says, not just paving the way for a “return to normal” but presenting the opportunity to widen monitoring by testing students at the school gate.

“You can measure the temperature of all the kids as they go through the gate to the school – that’s something I’d be encouraging all schools to do,” Dean of Health at Swinburne University Bruce Thompson said.

However, there are questions still lingering over the study (it hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed) and its scope (18 NSW school staff and students in total).

That hasn’t stopped Prime Minister Scott Morrison using the report as a springboard to urgently push all states to re-open schools to all students, with NSW seizing the moment.

This Wednesday will be a lead into May 11, the date the NSW education department has marked to begin face-to-face teaching to build into a full-scale return in term 3.

In announcing the move, state politicians have said it would be safe for parents to return their children to school from five days a week, but still encouraged a “staggered” method.

“Obviously schools are very safe places, but there are some parents who are still reluctant,” NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told a press conference on Sunday afternoon.

“Somewhere there has to be that balance making sure there’s a sense of confidence built.”

Social distancing will remain in place for parents, students, teachers and all school staff.

Sensible or premature?

Swinburne’s Professor Thompson said the move was not just safe, but a good idea.

“The amount of children that have actually communicated the disease to each other is almost zero,” Professor Thompson told The New Daily, adding the only cases found in schools were directly related to overseas travel.

“The concept of actually encouraging all the schools to open up is actually a very, very good one.”

He said Australia was at the point where “something had to give” in terms of winding back restrictions, and this repeal held a minuscule risk.

But the move has not been welcomed by all parties.

The state’s teachers union said the decision “beggars belief”.

“It fails to appreciate, let alone comprehend, the massive organisational and timetabling challenges that presents for schools,” NSW Teachers Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos told Nine’s Today show last week, referring to staggering school returns.

“In many settings it will be near impossible.”

Former senior research fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research Catherine Scott said re-opening schools was a poor, premature idea.

“This idea that kids don’t get the virus is nonsense – many of them that get the virus are asymptomatic,” Dr Scott told The New Daily.

As for the study, Dr Scott said, it was “very, very small and I understand one school had closed so there was a fairly small percentage of students actually there to test – it’s highly suspicious to me”.

“Is this the work of some politician somewhere who doesn’t like their own kids and don’t want them at home? I don’t know,” Dr Scott said.

“I don’t know how many parents are going to put their kids in harm’s way and send them back to school.”

She said it flew in the face of restrictions still in place that prevented children from visiting their grandparents.

“What the hell are (kids) doing in schools with other adults? Not all teachers are young,” she said.

“There are a lot of people in schools who are getting up towards that risky age group.”

From state to state

Although the federal government is encouraging all states to open all schools, each state has jurisdiction over what they choose to do.

In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews all but ignored a plea from the Liberal Party to re-open schools.

The state will stand by its “if you can learn from home, you must learn from home” policy.

Despite announcing picnics and other low-key activities will be permitted from next weekend, Queensland appears to be keeping its schools open only to children of essential workers.

There is a growing push, however, from Independent Schools Queensland for year 11 and 12 students to be the first to be allowed back in classrooms, should any hint of a return arise.

There will be a review on the policy on May 15.

South Australian students head back to school this week, and they have the option to learn remotely or in person.

About a week ago, chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier wrote to parents and school staff saying it was perfectly safe to send children to schools – but it was also OK for parents to keep kids home to learn online if that was what they felt comfortable with.

Western Australia’s school system is divided, with state schools happily re-opening this week, while some public schools are umm-ing, ahh-ing and backflipping over whether or not to open classrooms.

Term 2 also starts in Tasmania this week, which has become the worst-hit state per capita.

Schools in the state’s south and north will be open for children of essential workers, and students who cannot learn from home.

Schools in the north-west, where there has been a cluster outbreak related to a hospital, will be closed in line with the region’s lockdown.

The Northern Territory, with reasonably low case numbers, has also declared schools are safe and encouraged students to get back in the classroom.

The ACT has set up nine hub schools for children who cannot learn from home – the rest will be rolling up to e-classrooms this week for term 2.

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