There is growing anger among Australian parents about the official push to keep children at school during the widening coronavirus pandemic.
Social media is heaving with comments from concerned parents angered by the insistence that, as a growing number of people self-isolate and work remotely, children must still attend classes.
In Queensland, parents have accused the education department of heavy-handed threats to force kids to go to school.
One regional primary school student who has serious, long-standing health problems was told he must provide proof of illness for being absent during the crisis.
A second Queensland mum was told that fear of COVID-19 infection was not a valid excuse for her healthy child’s absence.
She was also told her child would fail a missed exam unless proof of illness was produced.
In a third case, a mum who told her Brisbane school that her kids were away because she was scared they would catch the coronavirus on the bus was told that position was unjustified.
“Please be aware that as the school has not been closed the students will require a medical certificate if absent for more than three days,” the school said in a text.
“Or absences will be classed as unjustified as per Dept of Education directions.”
It’s similar in Western Australia, where Secondary School Executives Association president Armando Giglia said the absentee rate at the state’s high schools was about 15 to 20 per cent, double the usual rate.
“The advice from the chief health officer is to stay at school but some people are not doing that,” Mr Giglia said.
“It’s unprecedented stuff.”
He said parents were confused by mixed messages.
Part of that confusion is a growing community disquiet that the business-as-usual approach doesn’t reflect reality on the ground.
There have been claims that some state schools do not have adequate soap supplies for dispensers in toilets.
In addition, private schools are rapidly gearing up for mass online learning or have closed for the holidays, while universities are also moving to online lessons.
Australian Medical Association WA president Andrew Miller has repeatedly called for a staged reduction in attendance, saying schools will close anyway if students fall ill.
But the governments across Australia insist schools should continue for as long as possible, arguing parents – including healthcare workers – need to remain at their jobs.
Mr Giglia said that commentary had upset some teachers, who felt they were being treated as babysitters.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison cautioned against closing government schools, warning it might be some time before they could re-open.
“What you do, you’ve got to keep doing for the next six months,” Mr Morrison told Sky News.
“Shut them down, they won’t open again. And that means your children will miss what is effectively a whole year of their education.
“Now if there’s not a good health reason to do that and risk the child’s education or cause them rather significant economic cost … you should keep the schools open.”
This week, Mr Morrison and Education Minister Dan Tehan wrote to Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fischer, asking him to ensure Catholic schools remained open.
But many parents are defying the official advice and keeping their kids at home.
The mother of the ill Queensland student said her school’s principal seemed “embarrassed” when he handed her education department advice demanding she produce medical evidence to explain her son’s absence after the coronavirus surfaced in their area.
“He was actually quite sheepish, embarrassed,” she said.
“Every family that’s making decisions about what is right for their children is now going to be asked for medical evidence, or they’ll be marked as an unauthorised absence.”
“It’s just heavy handed, that’s what it is. Bring it on Education Queensland, if you want to query me about why my kid’s not at school.”
On the NSW Central Coast, mother of two Sunshine Wood has kept her two children home since Monday.
There have been two unrelated cases of COVID-19 in her area.
For her family, the stakes are higher than most.
Mrs Wood’s son Israel has heart disease, an intellectual disability and Down Syndrome, which makes him more susceptible to respiratory illnesses.
On Wednesday, Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy tried to explain why shutting down schools – and society – was not on the cards.
“A short-term, two- to four-week shut down of society is not recommended by any of our experts. It does not achieve anything. We have to be in this for the long haul,” he said.
He said some localised school closures might be necessary in areas with big coronavirus outbreaks, and schools were taking measures to reduce “potential transmissions”.
That has included cancelling whole-of-school assemblies, camps and sports events, and imposing social distancing.