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Government seeks reinforcement teachers as major school scales down

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UPDATED 4PM | The state’s Education Department is scouring its reserve list of registered teachers for reinforcements as it plans to keep schools open amid the escalating coronavirus crisis.

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It comes as the teachers’ union demands SA schools close as early as this week until at least the end of the looming Term 1 holidays to enable alternative teaching models to be developed for the longer-term.

Casual and relief staff across the state have been sent emails from the agency telling them: “As a teacher currently registered on the department’s Employable Teacher Register, we are contacting you to check your availability to teach for the department at this current time”.

The message, seen by InDaily, asks them to indicate “if you are immediately available to teach on a temporary basis within a Government site”, seeking responses by close of business tomorrow.

It’s understood there has been forward planning put in place for the possibility of teachers walking off the job, with many raising concerns about remaining on the frontline as SA schools stay open.

But Education Department CEO Rick Persse told InDaily the primary motivation was assembling a reserve workforce to allow full-time teachers who might be susceptible to the coronavirus to stop attending classrooms.

“We need to scenario plan for the loss of some of our workforce who are vulnerable or sick, or caring for someone who is sick,” he said.

“[That presents a] challenge in smaller sites where losing a couple of staff could be the difference between opening and closing.”

Persse said the government “can’t assume that everyone on the reserve list is up for it, hence we are proactively updating details so we deploy quickly and confidently when needed”.

The move underlines the Marshall Government’s stated intent to keep schools open, despite other states taking a different approach this week – in a notable departure from the previous solidarity of the pandemic-prompted national cabinet.

Victorian schools closed this week ahead of that state’s school holidays commencing this weekend, with the ACT following suit, while NSW and Queensland parents have been urged to keep children at home if they can.

Australian Education Union SA secretary Lara Golding said the union was “calling for national consistency” and wanted SA to “follow the lead of the ACT and Victoria in bringing forward the holidays and providing student-free days until the end of term”.

She said this “would enable time for schools to prepare for different modes of education” as well as health and safety protocols, with some teachers “quite concerned” and considering their legal rights not to attend school.

In SA, several independent schools have taken steps towards switching to online learning, while Unley High School – which has already confirmed two COVID-19 cases, a teacher and a student – will this week “move to online learning for the remainder of Term 1”.

In a letter sent to parents this morning, principal Greg Rolton wrote that “the impact of COVID-19 on the Unley High School community has been greater than any other public high school”.

“Parent concerns are high and now the Federal and State governments have enacted the toughest measures in history to slow the impact of the COVID-19 virus.

“Parents are choosing to keep students at home for the safety of their families – we understand and support their actions as did the Premier… it is time for Unley High School to deliver education differently to support our community and keep everyone safe.”

Rolton said the school would remain open for parents who work in “essential services and industries”, with “a supervised study environment with both space and hygiene to support students to access the new online learning program”.

Unley was closed last week after a teacher returned a positive COVID-19 test, but reopened on Friday despite a student similarly returning a positive test the night before.

Responding to Unley’s move, a department spokesman said in a statement: “All schools are preparing at least two weeks of lessons to deliver remotely if classes are disrupted or they have to close – Unley High School has activated this option following the confirmed case of COVID-19 in response to the specific circumstances in their school.”

“This includes a high number of students self-isolating in accordance with health protocols,” they said.

“The advice of SA’s Chief Health Officer and the AHPPC remains that schools should be open – we continue to follow that advice.”

Labor’s Shadow Minister Susan Close said there was “a lot of mixed messaging about schools, with contradictory information about the merits of keeping them open”.

“Parents need and deserve certainty,” she said.

Education Minister John Gardner said Unley had 110 students and eight staff who had been “directed into self-isolation as a result of contact tracing” after the previous infections, which made the school’s scenario unique.

However, Gardner had earlier reiterated that the “strong advice” of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee was “to keep schools open as the most appropriate public health response from a health point of view”.

However, he told ABC Radio that advice also included “full adherence” to guidelines regarding cleaning and enhanced personal hygiene for children, staff and parents.

“We know that there are some school sites that in recent days, given the unprecedented demand for supplies on things like hand sanitiser and soap, have been reporting shortages,” he said.

“This is something that traditionally schools have had to take responsibility for, but we are now delivering all of that centrally [and] we’ve been working with our distribution networks and supplies to ensure that we have the capacity to support schools’ needs immediately.

“Yesterday we had delivery to 13 [schools] that had identified that they’d had a shortage.”

Professional opinion remains divided, with Professor Nigel McMillan, Program Director of Infectious Diseases and Immunology at Griffith University, arguing “the time to shut schools is long overdue [as] we may be severely underestimating the number of coronavirus cases in the community”.

“Australia has taken a risk-based approach based on the number of cases in the community… but we know this isn’t accurate and therefore our approach is flawed,” he said in a statement.

“The government has argued we need to keep the kids at school so they don’t go out in the community and spread infection. This very reasoning is why they should in fact close schools. Both local and international cases of asymptomatic school children have been found and social distancing issues in schools means they are a prime site for rapid spread of the virus.”

But La Trobe University’s Associate Professor Hassan Vally, an expert on infectious disease epidemiology, argues that a nation-wide closure of all schools “would be counter-productive at this point”.

“The decision to close schools should not be taken lightly as there are significant social and economic costs to society associated with this, as well as educational costs for the students,” Vally said.

“We also need to consider at what stage we are in the epidemic. Children are at low risk of infection and severe illness, and along with the relatively low rate of community transmission, this means teachers are also not at high risk of COVID-19.

“The evidence does not support the case for universal nation-wide closures at this stage given the significant costs to society and the minimal benefits.

“However, as the situation changes the advice may change.”

A curtailed state parliament sat today, with pairing arrangements ensuring a skeleton staff of MPs maintained social distancing requirements in the chamber.

MPs social distancing at parliament today.

Last night, the Liberal Party state executive took the extraordinary step of appointing a new MLC to the casual vacancy created by former Upper House president Andrew McLachlan’s recent senate switch, after a meeting of the party’s 200-odd state council members was cancelled, as InDaily reported last week.

Prominent Right-winger Nicola Centofanti – a Riverland veterinarian and current party vice-president – was appointed to fill the vacancy, with new Legislative Council president Terry Stephens hopeful a curtailed joint sitting can ratify her appointment on April 7.

Centofanti with Federal MP Tony Pasin. Photo: Facebook

But several hopefuls for the Upper House ticket were left disappointed by a decision to delay a further ballot indefinitely, despite party officials canvassing options for online voting.

“It’s regrettable, but it’s obviously no-one’s fault,” said one party source.

“I don’t think anyone could have predicted what’s occurred.”

Premier Steven Marshall today did not rule out a UK-style lockdown of all non-essential business, saying: “We are looking at all and every option to save lives in Australia.”

The State Government today opened a second drive-through COVID-19 testing facility at the Hampstead Rehabilitation Centre “to further increase options for South Australians requiring tests”.

Asked about the UK measures, Marshall said there would be “a meeting tonight of the national cabinet and we’ll receive an update from the AHPPC”.

“We’ll take the advice… but it’s safe to say we’re looking at all and every option to contain the spread of this disease,” he said.

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