More action needed to ensure COVID safe return-to-school plan in NSW

The NSW government has announced a staggered return to school from 25 October for those areas of the state in lockdown. This is welcome news for the teachers, students and families struggling through remote learning, but also comes with concerns over safety. Schools in local government areas with high numbers of cases may also remain closed, with a requirement to have less than 50 cases in the area per 100,000 people over a fortnight.

A return to school needs to be paired with improved safety measures for staff and students.

Vaccinations

Firstly, teachers across NSW need to be prioritised in the vaccine rollout. The NSW Teachers Federation has for months been calling on the government to prioritise teachers, yet this was largely ignored. The government is now mandating all teachers be double vaccinated before the return-to-school, when many teachers have only recently become eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

While students at the elite private St Joseph’s College in Hunters Hill received their vaccines “in error” by early July, teachers down the road at Hunters Hill High School took industrial action in August to highlight they were still not on the vaccine priority list.

Then when Year 12 students in Sydney hot spots were given priority, several teachers outside Sydney reported they had their vaccination bookings cancelled as the Pfizer was re-directed to Qudos Arena for Sydney students. It is blood-boiling hypocrisy for the government to have delayed so many teachers being able to get vaccinated yet now mandating every teacher be vaccinated before November.

Infrastructure funding

Even with teachers vaccinated, many students will remain unvaccinated. For younger children without serious medical conditions, the risks of COVID are less than for adults.

Older children aged 12-15 will be eligible for vaccination on 13 September, but there is no guarantee they will secure a booking in time.

Further safety measures do need to be put in place at schools, including investment in infrastructure. A recent report by the Office of the NSW Auditor General found that the current budget for government schools is not enough to meet classroom requirements for 2023 and beyond. That was without considering COVID-19. Cramped demountable classrooms crowding what was once the school oval are a common sight across NSW schools. There is an urgent need, particularly now with COVID-19, to invest in proper school infrastructure, including spacious classrooms with windows that open!

In addition, research is now showing that high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters could be installed in classrooms to help reduce exposure to airborne viruses such as COVID-19. They would go some way in helping make schools safer, particularly as bushfire season will force many teachers to close classroom doors and windows. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has promised to carry out ventilation assessments of school facilities and the NSW Department of Education says it will also review the issue. Teachers and parents will need to push to ensure adequate changes are made.

Testing, cleaning, and reduced class sizes

Additional measures such as regular testing, increased school cleaning, hand-washing stations and employing additional staff to reduce class sizes would all help make schools safer.

While schools currently lack the classrooms and staff for smaller class sizes, these are needed to reduce the risk of transmission among students but also to improve educational outcomes as students return to school potentially months behind in their education.

For schools with students from lower socio-economic backgrounds there needs to be even greater funding. Many of these students will have suffered more from the lockdown. If schools in some areas remain closed due to large numbers of cases, the government must address the inequity issues by providing all students there with laptops and good internet access. Smaller class sizes when back at school will help provide all students with more support to catch up on missed learning.

Scrap the HSC

Scrapping the HSC would be another welcome health measure.

Despite the pandemic, the government has been stubbornly focused on making the HSC happen, sending a message that tests are more important than health. The government was forced to back down on the return to school of Year 12 students in mid-August as case numbers continued to rise. However, they are now claiming the exams will go ahead in some form in November.

Several petitions and an open letter by the Activist Teachers Network NSW have called for the HSC to be scrapped. As the open letter argues, the HSC is a highly inequitable exam, it is redundant with most first-year university students using alternative pathways to enter university, and it is an unnecessary health risk bringing large numbers of students and staff together for the tests.

Improve pay and conditions

We also need better pay and conditions for school staff, particularly now in recognition of the complex student problems they are going to be dealing with in the return to face-to-face teaching.

Once schools re-open, teachers will be the ones to pick up the pieces with students likely to be behind in educational outcomes and facing more severe mental and social problems.

A 2018 report found that NSW teachers are already working on average 55-hour weeks. They will be stretched further to deal with the issues students present with after months in lockdown.

Completion rates in undergraduate teaching programs are now at around 50 per cent, yet at least 11,000 new teachers are needed in the next 10 years to meet the growth in student population. Improved conditions and pay are desperately needed to attract and retain teachers.

The NSW Teachers Federation will begin bargaining for a new award in October. Public school teachers are campaigning for a two-hour reduction in face-to-face teaching hours per week so that they have more time to plan for their classes, and a 5-7.5 per cent annual pay increase for two years.

The basic resources and conditions needed for teachers to do their jobs safely will take a fight. The NSW Teachers Federation is preparing for industrial action to win its pay and conditions claims. The same action is needed to ensure our classrooms are safe when they open.

By Vivian Honan

Sign the open letter to scrap this year’s HSC exams in NSW here

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