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Richardson: Clumsy compromise fails teachers, parents and students

Opinion

The Marshall Government’s “nuanced” compromise on returning to school could be a recipe for chaos – while a simpler solution was ignored, argues Tom Richardson.

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Victorian children will return to school as planned, if not as normal, later this month.

In Queensland, the Government has taken a different tack and will delay the resumption of classes for two weeks.

Neither option is ideal. In a pandemic, perfect is the enemy of good.

There will be Victorians concerned for the welfare of their kids being sent to congregate at the height of the Omicron outbreak, despite the rollout of air purifiers for classrooms, which education and acting health minister James Merlino has promised to “get in a truck and deliver myself” if necessary – which, frankly, hardly instils much confidence.

Some Queenslanders won’t take kindly to an extension of school holidays, with a handful of private schools already making plans to resume home learning at the scheduled start of term one.

South Australia, as is its wont, has split the difference – and in so doing reinforced the old Margaret Thatcher adage that if you stay in the middle of the road, you get knocked down from both sides.

“What we’re doing here is trying to get the balance right,” says Premier Steven Marshall.

But in reality it appears a needlessly convoluted solution to a problem that really requires something simple and straightforward.

And moreover, it appears to have been made by a bunch of people with very little experience or memory of parenting primary-school-aged children.

In essence, students in reception and years one, seven, eight and 12 will return to the classroom from Wednesday February 2, half a week into the scheduled school term, while other year levels will begin home learning from the same day.

Vulnerable children and those whose parents are deemed “essential workers” will be allowed to return to classrooms from January 31.

“We can’t expect receptions and year ones to be learning online from home,” Marshall said yesterday.

That’s true, and particularly true for the start of the school year, when the emphasis is not so much on learning but on adapting younger children to their new environment and routine.

It seems petty to complain about a week and a half of learning from home when our eastern state neighbours spent much of the last school year juggling work and home-schooling.

But they were also in lockdown, which at least meant they had nowhere else to be – a situation many workers in SA will now have to ponder for the first two weeks of school.

Marshall says his solution is more “nuanced” than Queensland’s (he could also have substituted ‘complicated’), but in truth it makes one particularly crass simplification: it deals with all school children, both primary and high school-aged, in the same equation.

This is despite the fact that 12 to 17 year-olds have been eligible for vaccination for months now, while kids aged five to 11 have only had days.

Moreover, while you can’t reasonably expect receptions and year ones to simply hit the ground running with a class hook-up on Microsoft Teams on day one of term, it’s hardly more reasonable to expect other primary-aged kids to do so either.

Or their teachers for that matter.

Even in Melbourne, the school year had already kicked off when students started learning from home.

This meant a rapport had been established, teachers knew individual students’ learning capacities and needs, and had an understanding of how to motivate them and how much to expect of them.

And then, of course, there’s the parents.

We’ve been pretty lucky with the scant amount of time we’ve spent in lockdown in SA.

The first time we had stay-at-home orders, schools remained open and, frankly, it all functioned pretty well in our household.

The last time, which ran for a week, schools were also closed and let me tell you: if I had the choice between being in lockdown with no home schooling and home-schooling with no lockdown, I’d take the lockdown any day of the week.

And it wasn’t simply trying to keep children focussed on their tasks while simultaneously filing for deadline – just navigating the technology alone was a bit of a nightmare.

And while I may not be very tech-savvy, I’m surely not the only one.

After all, Marshall himself was confined to quarters this week as a close contact of his COVID-positive adult daughter, and had to conduct his daily media briefings via Microsoft Teams.

The first two of them were logistical debacles, in part because Marshall apparently muted himself for all the journos asking him questions, which meant they had no idea what he was actually saying in the lead-up.

So if the Premier can’t use Teams proficiently, why should we expect primary school kids to be able to?

Then there’s the question about preschools/kindies, which wasn’t even mentioned yesterday, and when I asked about it Marshall didn’t appear to know what they were – or that his government was responsible for them.

“Our early childhood is already open [and] this is controlled by the federal government,” he said.

“Kindergartens and those services are currently open for those who are receiving that service.”

He then added something about issues “with regards to the state system [for which] we will provide advice tomorrow”.

“[But] it’s our intention for them to also be open in accordance with the plan,” he said.

His office later clarified they’ll be going back as normal from February 2.

Most preschool attendees are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

There are further issues that remain unclear, and will presumably be left to individual schools to navigate.

What becomes of those increasingly common composite classes?

Presumably a teacher of a year 1/2 class isn’t expected to teach the elder bracket online while herding the younger cohort in the classroom?

Whatever the solution, it will presumably be as disruptive to the students’ school experience as a two-week delay would have been.

Likewise, those children of essential workers who are eligible to attend class.

They won’t be in there learning in a structured sense, they’ll simply be minded (probably by SSOs, in many cases) while they attempt to join their classmates in online learning.

The experience of many teachers in the last lockdown was that those students who did attend school accomplished less schoolwork than the ones that learnt from home.

And as for families with young children in multiple year levels, good luck to them navigating the mornings dropping one sibling at school while explaining why the other is staying home – not to mention that those children learning at home will be effectively just as exposed to the virus as their sibling going to school.

The only reason I can think of for instituting such a convoluted approach is an underpinning assumption that this situation may yet continue beyond February 14, when face-to-face teaching is currently scheduled to resume for all year levels.

But no, Marshall insists.

“We did consider that [possibility but] we are very, very confident the plan we outlined today is the one we will be implementing in full,” he said yesterday.

Which begs the question: if we’re so confident classes can resume on February 14, why not simply delay their resumption until then – at least for all but (perhaps) year 11 and year 12s?

As a parent, it’s one thing to juggle work and holidaying children, but quite another matter to attempt to juggle work and home schooling.

Especially since, for primary school kids – the contingent still largely unvaccinated – those first two weeks are primarily about getting to know their teacher, their classmates, their environment.

None of which is going to happen here.

“This will massively reduce the number of new infections during February,” says Marshall – and this is important.

But the solution is going to create far more headaches than a very simple alternative would have: following Queensland’s lead in delaying the start of term, with teachers using the intervening period to tweak the curriculum accordingly.

If the Marshall Government loses the state election in March they can sheet it home to a few things: that infamous decision not to close borders to the Omicron variant when the health advice said they should. The garbled communications ever since, as evidenced just this week with the Premier’s backflip on mandatory reporting of positive RAT results.

But, with writs likely to be issued around the middle of February, the decision they’ve taken on schooling could yet prove the most decisive.

And if they don’t lose the election? Well, they can consider themselves very lucky.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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