Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia have moved to close schools to most students, as education departments across the country grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced schools will have student-free days from Monday but vulnerable children and the kids of essential workers will still be able to attend.
“Next week Queensland schools will move to student free and of course though it is also really important to recognise that schools will remain open,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
“It will allow children to remain at school and for teachers to prepare to learn from – prepare to move to learning from home.”
The Premier says the directive applies to all schools, not just state schools.
More info here: https://t.co/7ht0jdRfe3
— Annastacia Palaszczuk (@AnnastaciaMP) March 26, 2020
South Australian schools and pre-schools will also be pupil-free in the week before the Easter holidays, with the state government announcing a move to online learning in term two.
The state government said four pupil-free days before Good Friday would give teachers time to prepare to transition to “flexible learning” at the start of term two.
However, the teachers’ union has criticised the announcement as “too little, too late”, saying some staff were feeling “terrified” because of the risk to their health.
Education Minister John Gardner said schools would remain open in a “modified environment” for the children of parents who have to work, and for vulnerable children.
Like Queensland, the measures are expected to apply across the Catholic and independent school sectors.
Meanwhile, West Australian Premier Mark McGowan has announced term 1 at public schools will finish a week earlier than usual to allow teachers to prepare for classes to move to online.
The Premier had previously said that parents were free to choose whether they sent their children to school.
The latest announcement means the term will finish at the end of the school day on Friday, April 3, with parents being encouraged to keep their children home from next week.
“From now until next Friday, all children who attend public schools will continue to be taught,” Mr McGowan said.
“Staff will continue to be on hand to ensure that this can occur.
“However, the state government encourages families to keep their children at home if they can access the online or other resources for the education of their children to continue.”
Mr McGowan stressed the education system would continue to support families.
“I want to reassure parents that our schools are well prepared to continue to provide education for their children,” he said.
I know the situation around our public schools has been causing angst for parents, teachers, staff and students.
I understand that it may be confusing, but we’ve kept them open, consistent with the best medical advice at hand through the National Cabinet process. pic.twitter.com/Db4rXQ1fTF
— Mark McGowan (@MarkMcGowanMP) March 26, 2020
The decision follows the announcement that private schools across the state will also move to online teaching.
All five of WA’s major universities have made accommodations for online learning, with University of Western Australia having moved to a digital campus as of yesterday.
Jump in Queensland cases
Queensland recorded 50 new cases of coronavirus overnight, taking the total to 493, but no one is currently in intensive care.
In announcing the student-free move, Premier Palaszczuk said there had been no change to the health advice that’s kept schools open so far.
But she said the change was about striking the right balance, including the needs of essential workers and community concerns about the schools-open policy.
Vital staff, from healthcare workers to supermarket shelf-fillers, can continue to send their kids to class from Monday.
Vulnerable children can also still attend and arrangements will be made to protect high-risk education workers.
But parents in non-essential jobs should keep their kids home, and make sure they are learning, not “out and about at shopping centres”, the Premier said.
Teachers will use the student-free days to prepare for mass online and remote learning.
“We are making it very clear that student-free days mean that teachers are going to be at school. The schools are going to be open,” Ms Palaszczuk told reporters.
“We have a lot of frontline workers out there … that actually need to have their students at school.”
Education Minister Grace Grace said community kindergartens would also go pupil-free from Monday. But long daycare centres would remain open to ensure vital workers can continue working.
Teachers ‘flying blind’
WA Education Minister Sue Ellery said schools would supervise children whose parents were continuing to work.
She said the following week, in the four days beginning April 6, schools would provide supervision only, not teaching.
Ms Ellery said this would give teachers flexibility and time to prepare for how classes could operate in term two.
“With significantly less students attending next week, schools will have the flexibility to rearrange classes as appropriate,” Ms Ellery said.
“This will reduce some of the pressure.
“In the week of the 6th of April, teachers and education assistants and other school staff begin the preparation for what education in a combination of physical school settings and distance and online education will look like in term two.”
Western Australia’s move to finish the current term a week early comes after State School Teachers’ Union urged the government to follow Victoria’s lead to shut schools to give educators adequate time to prepare for the next phase of remote learning.
Union president Pat Byrne, who had earlier warned teachers were “flying blind” attempting to navigate the pandemic’s challenges, said people were making “huge assumptions” about the ease of setting up online learning.
Children do not have equitable access to devices once they are out of the classroom environment, she told West Live host Jenna Clarke.
Students staying away
South Australian Mr Gardner said absenteeism across the board had reached 25 per cent and attempts were being made to move towards a remote learning model.
However schools will remain open for those families in need, as well as vulnerable students.
“It’s very, very challenging to deliver an effective model of education when you’re deal with two cohorts in an in-classroom environment and a learning-from-home environment,” Mr Gardner said.
“We are giving these four pupil-free days to ensure that our teachers and our schools can become familiar with the resources we are providing for them.
“The message for parents is this – if you are capable of supervising your child at home so they can learn from home, we are now supporting you to do so.
“Some of those students are going to be learning from home, some of them are going to be learning at school, supervised, but some of the teachers will be doing the instruction working from home. Some of them will be in the school site.
“The model of learning must be consistent across those cohorts.”