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'I ruled it out': Premier's lesson over early schools closure call

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Premier Peter Malinauskas says he has made it “crystal clear” to the Education Department that he rejects a teachers’ union call for term one to end early due to pandemic fatigue, as a COVID management committee today examines close contact rules.

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Speaking to reporters shortly after arriving at this morning’s first Emergency Management Council meeting to discuss the state’s handling of the pandemic, Malinauskas said he “fundamentally opposed” calls from the Australian Education Union to prematurely end term one.

“I don’t speak abruptly because there isn’t a legitimate concern here – there is,” he said.

“Our teachers are under the pump, but so are a lot of other South Australians.

“I would have every single public servant… with a working with children check out in schools acting as temporary chalkies before I close the schools down.”

The union wants the final week of term one – beginning April 11 – to be replaced with pupil free days to give “fatigued” teachers more time to recoup and plan lessons.

Education Department data shows seven schools currently have classes closed, two schools have entire year levels closed and three schools – including Paralowie R-12 – have all students learning remotely until Monday, due to soaring COVID-19 cases in classrooms.

I essentially ruled it out as an option

As of Wednesday, just under 500 public school teachers and 287 SSOs were absent from classrooms due to COVID-19 quarantine requirements.

“All other options have been explored and we still have a problem,” the union’s state president Andrew Gohl told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning.

“There are people who are fatigued, they are exhausted and if we go into term two – when we’re going into winter – because of their state, they’ll be susceptible to more diseases like colds and flus as they go around.

“They need that time – that last week – to regroup and do that planning into term two, possibly even consider developing programs that might be for online learning.”

But when asked this morning on ABC Radio Adelaide if he would support the union’s request, Malinauskas said: “Not if I’ve got anything to do with it – and I do”.

Flexing his new powers as premier, Malinauskas said he made it “crystal clear” to Education Department chief executive Rick Persse that he wanted classrooms to stay open as scheduled.

“I essentially ruled it out as an option,” he said.

“If the Government I lead is going to think about closing down schools for a week, I expect to know about it and I expect to have a say on it.

I just can’t countenance the idea of extending the school holidays by an entire week – the amount of disruption that would cause parents, cause students, cause people who don’t have fixed incomes.

“If something huge and unforeseeable occurs, if we get a whole new variant and the like then clearly during COVID you can’t rule anything out but what I’m saying is the idea of shutting down school for a week would have to be the option of the most last of resorts and I don’t think we’re anywhere near that.”

Malinauskas said he rang state emergency coordinator Grant Stevens last night “to understand where he comes from on this issue”.

“He said that as it currently stands, he has no intention to issue a direction to close schools down and there hasn’t been any suggestion put to him that that might be necessary,” he said.

The issue was likely discussed at this morning’s Emergency Management Council meeting, chaired by Malinauskas, who said Education minister Blair Boyer was attending.

The council, which comprises cabinet ministers as well as department chiefs and public health officers, replaces the now-abolished COVID-Ready committee, which was used by the former Marshall government to advise state coordinator Grant Stevens on changes to restrictions.

Reporters and cameras were allowed briefly into the meeting to hear Malinauskas make opening remarks.

In attendance were Persse, Stevens, chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier, Boyer, Deputy Premier Susan Close, Health Minister Chris Picton, Transport Minister Tom Koutsantonis, Emergency Services Minister Joe Szakacs, SA Health chief executive Chris McGowan, and Department of the Premier and Cabinet chief executive Nick Reade.

The premier told reporters ahead of the meeting that the council would also discuss reducing the quarantine period for close contacts of positive cases from 14 days down to seven, in line with the other states.

“Clearly the arrangement where someone in a household who’s a close contact can have 14 days isolation, even though they don’t have COVID and someone who does have COVID faces seven days – that’s a unique set of circumstances that needs to be examined very closely,” he said.

New modelling showing the projected impact on COVID-19 case numbers once South Australia eases quarantine and mask-wearing rules was also prepared for today’s meeting.

“I’ve made it clear that modelling that goes to public health advice, we should be transparent about, I mean, why wouldn’t we be?,” Malinauskas said.

“We can make sure that any of that modelling that we get today – provided of course that it is supported by Nicola Spurrier and Grant Stevens – we’ll release that all publicly.”

Malinauskas, Spurrier and Stevens are scheduled to hold a press conference at 1pm to discuss the outcomes of this morning’s meeting.

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