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Questions over Marshall's mixed messages on schools

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Only around a third of enrolled students are still attending state schools in South Australia, with the Education Union warning of “significant serious health and safety concerns” on sites and questioning the Marshall Government’s messaging to parents.

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A fortnight ago, Premier Steven Marshall said “the advice from health professionals is very clear [that] students must remain at school”, adding he “discouraged” parents keeping their children at home amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, though, schools across the state have written to parents detailing changes to their learning programs after a newly-imposed four-day pupil-free period leading into the Easter break.

One missive to parents says the student-free days are to “help us prepare for learning at home”, with schools calling for “some idea of how many children will be working from home and how many will be attending school” in Term 2.

Several schools have conducted surveys to gauge participation rates for term 2.

On Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison – who had previously been firm that classes should remain open – noted that school “won’t look like it has up until now” next term.

“We have entered the transition phase with schools,” he said at the time, adding states and territories would be pursuing their own arrangements.

But Marshall today maintained that “right from day one we’ve been really clear”.

“We’re taking the advice of public health officers [and] the advice still on this issue is crystal clear,” he said – although he did not explicitly detail whether that advice was the keep schools open for all students.

“But in term 2 we’re working to a new model of delivering additional services online for home,” he added.

“We couldn’t be clearer, right from day one – our schools will remain open… this is absolutely critical to making sure our students get the best education they can through this year.”

However, he appears to have walked back his determination that students should physically attend classes, saying schools would be open so that “students are still supervised when no supervision can occur at home because their parents are still working”.

He also noted since the majority of parents had withdrawn their children from school, this was “reducing the density and allowing for much more social distancing at those schools”.

A statement from the office of Education Minister John Gardner said: “In South Australia, the health advice from our Chief Public Health Officer hasn’t changed.”

“That health advice is that schools, preschools and early childhood services should remain open,” it said.

“A large number of South Australian parents have now taken responsibility for the supervision of their children’s learning at home, and we are now providing support for those parents.

“Many other South Australian children, including children of essential workers, vulnerable children, and a number of others, will need to continue attending our schools, preschools and early childhood services.

“No child will be turned away.”

However, the statement says “we support parents and carers who choose to keep their children home during this time”, noting the Our Learning SA curriculum portal “is available to parents, and we are preparing new models of teaching and learning that can be delivered consistently to students at home and at school from term 2”.

The Australian Education Union is conducting a survey of its members, with more than 1400 respondents in the past three days highlighting “significant serious health and safety concerns for students and staff and a workforce feeling undervalued and stretched to breaking point”.

The survey indicates around one-third of students continue to attend preschools and schools, with 71.4 per cent of respondents reporting that “students are not practicing social distancing”.

“Despite low attendance, 54.5 per cent report that social distancing is impossible in the classroom environment,” the union says.

Almost 46 per cent say staff and students did not have access to the necessary sanitising products, with more that 52 per cent saying their site’s daily cleaning regime is insufficient to regularly clean touchpoints and common surfaces.

AEU SA president Lara Golding told InDaily: “We’re highly concerned that the information that has been provided to parents [in SA] does not reflect the reality of the challenges faced by the teachers caused by COVID-19 and it does not reflect the directive given by the Prime Minister last Friday.”

“The advice from the Prime Minister is clear and that is that it is only those children of workers for whom no suitable care arrangements are available at home can physically attend school,” she said.

“What the information that the Department has prepared to be sent out to parents merely says that parents can choose.

“This is highly concerning because teachers are not prepared to have large groups of students remain in their classrooms.

“Social distancing is impossible, there’s not adequate sanitising products provided, the cleaning is not sufficient and teachers are not trained to control the spread of the virus.”

She said clean surfaces and “frequent cleaning of touch points [is] really important in controlling the spread of the virus and this isn’t able to occur during the school day – you might have lots of children touching lots of surfaces”.

“A lot of teachers are trying to do [the cleaning] themselves, but they don’t have the training or even necessarily the resources to do it,” she said.

She called on Gardner to guarantee “that staff and students attending preschools and schools are safe from contracting COVID-19 [and] if Minister Gardner cannot make this guarantee parents should keep their children at home”.

Marshall said today his Government was “working very closely with our schools, the leadership… and fantastic teachers”.

“They’ve been out through a lot, trying to change their way of teaching from a class in front of them to a class that might be at home, or online.”

He acknowledged there had been some shortages “of the key hygiene products” but was confident this had been addressed, adding the Government was spending an extra $5 million on cleaning services.

“We’re very grateful for the work the teachers are doing… we know they’re performing a very, very important task at the moment,” he said.

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