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Should you send your child to school?

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The questions SA parents are asking, answered – by the head of the Education Department.

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Premier Steven Marshall says the Coronavirus advice on schools is “crystal clear” – but his own rhetoric has shifted dramatically from a fortnight ago, when he insisted parents shouldn’t keep their children at home, warning to do so would “increase the risk and reduce our response as a nation to tackle the coronavirus”.

Since then, states have introduced an early holiday shutdown, and in SA this week schools have been quizzing parents about whether their kids will attend next term.

InDaily’s Tom Richardson spoke to Education Department CEO Rick Persse to clarify the situation.

 

TR: Two weeks ago the Premier said the advice was clear: schools must remain open and parents should send their children to school. We were told to not do so would risk spreading the virus elsewhere – but we were also told by the national Chief Public Health Officer there wasn’t evidence children were heavy spreaders of the virus.

Now schools are asking parents whether their children will be at school next term, which will be an online learning program.

So the primary question is: has the Government changed its policy in relation to schools?

RP: No, I don’t think it has – we’ve always been following the Health advice.

What has occurred though, obviously, is a lot of parents are choosing to keep kids at home, for their own reasons – and we support that.

We’re not there to second-guess parents on that.

So what’s emerging is a situation where we’re providing kind of a ‘learning at school’ and a ‘learning at home’ model, and until such time as Health changes its advice that’s how we’re going to go forward. And that’s what we’re planning for with those student-free days coming up next week, to be able to start Term 2 in the best position we can.

 

So the health advice hasn’t changed?

No, it hasn’t – the AHPPC [Australian Health Protection Principal Committee] and [SA Chief Public Health Officer] Associate Professor [Nicola] Spurrier have been very clear with us that it’s safe for schools to operate.

But she’s also realistic, as we are, that families are making choices – and in some ways that’s going to make things a little easier in terms of social distancing in schools, which we recognise is a problem.

You’ve got kids, I’ve got kids – they tend to ‘free-range’ a little bit more, particularly in the younger years…

But that health position hasn’t changed.

 

The Premier said two weeks ago he’d discourage people keeping their children at home, and not to do so “doesn’t diminish the risk, it increases the risk and reduces our response as a nation to tackle the coronavirus”.

Was that possibly going a bit too fair? You seem to now be encouraging students to remain at home where they can.

I can’t comment on that particular quote, I haven’t seen that one [but] we’re not encouraging people to keep their kids at home, we’re supporting their choice.

We believe we’ve got to provide an option for both learning at home and learning at school.

We know there’s going to be families – and it’s not just frontline health workers, I need to stress – who aren’t able to provide a supervised kind of learning-at-home arrangement for their kids… and these are as much the people trying to keep internet and power and replace your hot water system and so on, and keep the racks at Woolies chock-a-block.

We’re continuing with the Health advice, which is that it’s safe to attend school

What about the people who aren’t what might be regarded in this time as an essential service? What if it’s just difficult because they have a job and it requires their attention – would the Government prefer children to be working from home or working from school?

I don’t have a strong position on it… I’m supporting their choice. And they’re in the best position to see what arrangement works for them.

What I’ve got to do is ensure there’s a mechanism for kids’ education to continue, whether they’re at home or at school.

Rick Persse in 2016. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

I think a lot of parents are waiting for the advice that Government is privy to, to inform the choice they make. I’m sure many would be willing to curtail their work or other commitments depending on what that advice is. So is the advice that it’s safe for children to attend school, and is it safer in terms of the community spread?

We’re continuing with the Health advice, which is that it’s safe to attend school.

I’m not qualified to give Health advice on transmission and so on, that’s why I listen to health experts – if I was listening to everyone else at the moment, it would be an absolute rabble.

We’re very, very focused and lockstep with Health on this stuff.

 

I appreciate this is a recent development, but there have now been cases in Europe and the UK this week with children as young as 12 and 13, with no apparent underlying health conditions, dying from COVID-19. Can parents feel confident in sending their children into schools, that children are not going to be overly susceptible to this virus?

Once again, Nicola Spurrier, and [Communicable Disease Control Branch director] Louise Flood and [newly-appointed Deputy Chief Public Health Officers] Mike Cusack and Chris Lease, they’re the experts on that.

I have heard those reports, and they’re tragic. But also, in the scheme of the numbers that are washing across Europe, there’s clearly some isolated incidents… I’m just not privy to the circumstances of those kids and I won’t step in as an amateur trying to be an expert on health advice.

 

If the health advice is consistent, and the approach has clearly changed – is it to appease teachers who are concerned, or the union concerned for their members? Or is it a direction from the national cabinet? Does the national cabinet receive the same health advice as the State Government?

It’s an interesting one, because from where I sit I don’t think there’s been any massive change in the settings.

As I say, I can’t speak about the specific quotes that the PM or Premier may make in a media statement, but the Health position on this, which is where I look, is very, very constant.

What we’re dealing with though, is the fact there are vulnerable cohorts in our community and, you know, I run a big, big show – we’ve got 31,000 staff. And in that, there are people who would meet the definition of those vulnerable cohorts, whether they’re elderly staff or aboriginal employees, and we’re going to create the conditions where those people can reduce any risk to them, and have people working from home or on suitable leave arrangements.

So I don’t feel like there’s been this kind of large swinging change in the settings that other people are commenting on.

 

Parents are being asked to nominate whether they’ll continue at school next term – how can they make that decision now, without knowing what schools are offering for them next term?

That’s a good question, I think schools are trying to get an understanding of what families’ intentions are for next term, largely for planning.

If we’ve got a setting where we’ve got 80 staff and 10 per cent of kids arriving, then that leader’s going to need to make staffing decisions around how many people does he or she need on-site versus who can work from home or maybe even take leave…

It’s not a kind of one-shot-in-the-locker decision for parents… because what we know is that some households, their world will change – either through employment or illness themselves, or even on a site we’ll enact our protocol like we did with Pennington last night and close it down [Pennington Primary, north-west of Adelaide, was closed due to a COVID-19 case in line with established protocols].

So it’s all about understanding what the demands are on sites, both from students and staff.

 

Assuming they will be learning via the online portal, they’ll be doing that whether they’re at home or at school?

We’re obviously working very closely with our colleagues interstate, and obviously NSW and Victoria are feeling the pinch of this a bit harder than we are in SA… but equally with the school holiday timing, things are a bit different. Where they’re headed – and I think we’ll largely be following suit – is that it will be ‘school at school’ or ‘school at home’.

What we’re very keen to do is create as regular an experience as we can for kids who are on-site or at home – noting the obvious difference.

So we’re working on some advice, which we’re going to get out to schools this week… and already we’ve got schools that are flying in this area, where they’re running basically the identical timetable whether you’re at home or at school.

So the subjects are happening the same way, the break times are happening the same way…

We’re trying to create as much of a normal experience as we can in an abnormal set of circumstances.

 

What will the model of teaching look like? Will students attending be in shared classrooms with other classes? Or even other year levels?

I think that will depend on who’s rocking up.

[He notes that schools such as Westport and Heathfield are already trialling the online learning approach.]

They’ve got a lot of kids at home and they were able to make decisions about consolidating small groups of students across year threes – I think they’d normally have three Year Three classes, but a lot of kids are at home… so they’ve been able to bring some of those classes together, with appropriate attention to asocial distancing.

And they’ve got the teacher out the front with the kids who are in the classroom, and two teachers supporting the kids who at home doing the same subject at the same time.

 

And are the kids at the school learning through a laptop?

In that setting, every kid at Westport’s on a Chromebook, they’ve got great arrangements. But we’re mindful that some of our schools don’t have that ubiquitous level of technology for every child, and our technology group here is working hand in glove with Telstra and Microsoft about how we can equip those families.

There’s going to be a lot of families that do have internet access and do have a device at home, but what happens if you have four kids at home? So we’re going to see how we can supplement that.

We’re also working with the ABC – all the states and territories are – because they’re dedicating an education channel as well, so there’s some different kind of mediums where the educational content can get out there.

We’re not expecting Mum or Dad at home to become instant overnight experts at fractal geometry and things like that

 

How much supervision will parents – who may be juggling a full-time job from home – have to provide?

That’s a great question, and I’m kind of glad you asked it, because I’d really like a message out there to parents to not be too hard on themselves here.

They’re being asked to step into the role of a professional.

Educators sometimes get a bad rap in the community – and I think we’re going to have lots in the community work out just how complicated it is being a teacher.

What we’re hoping for is for those kids that are home, that they can get a level of support and oversight, but we’re not expecting Mum or Dad at home to become instant overnight experts at fractal geometry and things like that – it’s just not sensible.

 

Bearing in mind obviously that it’s an evolving situation, but at this stage for how long are you currently planning on this learning model to be in place?

At the moment, we have to take our lead from the experts who are modelling this – and we think we have a big role to play in flattening that curve, but also making sure our community keeps functioning as best it can during that.

There are lots of kids in our community where school is clearly the best option for them, because the home setting isn’t ideal and school is a safer and better option.

We think Term 2 is going to look pretty different to your average Term 2, and we will put in place those arrangements and continually improve them for as long as we need to.

We’d all love to get back to normal settings, but we don’t have control of that situation – we can only respond to it.

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