An earlier than planned return to face-to-face schooling has caught many Canberrans off-guard, with some parents fearful at the prospect of their children being back in the classroom amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry yesterday announced the Government would no longer pursue its plan to keep teaching online for term two, instead returning students to the classroom in stages from May 18 until June 2.
This means that, in a little over a week, all preschool, kindergarten, year 1, 2 and 7 public school students will be the first to return to their usual school for on-campus learning.
Non-government schools, both Catholic and independent, will also be transitioning back to on-campus learning over the next month.
Online, Ms Berry’s announcement spurred some furious reactions from parents.
“[This is] a deeply disappointing and stupid decision,” one parent wrote on Ms Berry’s Facebook page.
“My high school and college children will now come into contact with hundreds of people each day, bringing potential infection to a family that includes a 95-year-old … and a grandparent and sister-in-law with cancer.
Others said they would not follow the planned return.
“I knew you’d create more anxiety for parents. I will not be sending my child back to school so soon,” another parent wrote.
Still others questioned the change in strategy, and the extra work it would cause teachers.
Teachers say they learned of the changes through the media
The Education Minister outlined the changes in a self-described “really long post” on Facebook, which quickly filled with frustrated comments from teachers, who said they had only learned of these changes through the media.
“I was disappointed to learn of the upcoming changes to my employment arrangements in the media. Teachers have generally been flexible, worked hard and focused on doing the best they can in difficult circumstances. We still have no assurances that basic hygiene provisions will be catered for. Informing your workforce first really should have been a common courtesy. This has only caused more stress,” wrote one.
“The ACT’s teaching community has struggled so hard to maintain their focus … and this government can’t even show them the dignity to let THEM know before rushing off to the media to see if you can lift your polling,” wrote another.
Others told Ms Berry they feared for their safety.
“You have mentioned at-risk vulnerable children having the option to stay home … all this highlights is that the possibility of exposure to the virus in a school setting is still very much a possibility and anticipated,” one woman wrote.
Still another complained of the disruption the “wasted” online planning had caused.
“My team has spent many hours planning for online learning for term two. I’m glad we put in so much time and effort … sigh,” she wrote.
Government defends a staggered return
ACT Health advice for returning to face-to-face learning in ACT public schools has been that “students aged 3-19 years are not at increased risk in returning to face-to-face learning, and that good hygiene and environmental cleaning are the most important tools for reducing the risk of transmissions for staff and students in ACT public schools”.
Ms Berry said the Government had been consulting with parents, teachers and the union over several weeks, on a plan to return to on-campus schooling which follows this advice.
As well as “extra cleaning”, “physical distancing measures for adults” and “ready access to COVID-19 testing”, students will return to campuses in stages.
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr last Friday also said that “a staged return in public schools, beginning with younger children who need more hands on support for learning, and secondary students at key points in their learning journey, such as year seven and year 12” was likely “in the weeks to come”.
This will bring the ACT in line with both New South Wales and Queensland, who on Monday announced staged approaches to reopening their schools.
The Education Union said yesterday that a staged return was a sensible transition that was “timed just right” and allowed space to address parent and staff concerns.
The ACT Parents and Citizens Council was also satisfied the Government had listened to parents concerns and needs in developing a plan.
“We are pleased to see a rapid response to these difficulties.”
Some parents welcome the change
There are, however, many parents relieved at the news their children will be returning to their own schools.
“I have three very happy high school children who are looking forward to returning to school and getting back into proper face to face learning. Particularly those subjects that just could not work properly from home — concert band, outdoor education, woodwork, ” wrote one person.
“This is great news, thank you for your hard work in keeping us safe,” wrote another.
Canberra mother of two Jo Fisher said she thought the plan had been well organised, and that people needed relief from the difficulties remote schooling had imposed.
“Provided we educate and reinforce the importance of social distance with the kids, I think we are ready to transition back to school,” Ms Fisher said.
The Education Minister said she was grateful for parents’ patience.
“This has not been an easy experience,” Ms Berry said.
“If this situation changes again and an increase in new cases of the virus arises, the Government remains ready to respond sensibly.”