News National Coronavirus confusion: Hobart principal urges students to stay home
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Coronavirus confusion: Hobart principal urges students to stay home

Students at a Sydney private school have reportedly been seen joking about social distancing rules. Photo: Getty/TND
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A Hobart school principal has urged parents to keep their children home where possible after dozens of students were turning up for invalid reasons despite Tasmania’s strict stay-at-home coronavirus rules.

In an email sent to parents and carers, St Mary’s College principal Helen Spencer said she had heard reports of children being sent to school because they missed their friends or their parents wanted to get housework done.

Ms Spencer’s plea is the latest example of growing confusion among teachers and parents over the controversial issue of opening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Sunday, tensions between the federal and state governments flared again when federal Education Minister Dan Tehan launched a scathing attack on Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.

Speaking on ABC’s Insiders program, Mr Tehan accused Mr Andrews of “taking a sledgehammer” to the school system by refusing to reopen schools amid the health crisis.

“It’s safe for schools to be open and it is safe for teachers to be in the classroom when the right protocols are in place,” Mr Tehan told the program, urging parents to send their children back to school.

His attack on Mr Andrews’ leadership was poorly timed.

About an hour later, state Health Minister Jenny Mikakos reported a teacher had tested positive for COVID-19 at Meadowglen Primary School in the Melbourne suburb of Epping.

The school’s principal Loretta Piazza told 3AW the teacher had “very mild symptoms” and “did not come into contact with any students”.

The school will be closed until Wednesday to allow thorough cleaning and contact tracing.

Students who can’t learn from home will be able to attend another nearby school.

Ms Mikakos said state authorities were best placed to make decisions about reopening schools, not the Morrison government.

Mr Tehan withdrew his comments hours later on Sunday afternoon.

“It was this frustration that led me to overstep the mark in questioning Premier Andrews’ leadership on this matter and I withdraw,” Mr Tehan said in a statement.

Hours later, NSW’s education department advised Warragamba Public School that a student had tested positive and that the school would also be closed for on-site learning on Monday.

“The school will be non-operational for the on-site attendance of staff and students while the school conducts contact tracing and is cleaned,” the department advised.

“Staff and students who are identified as a close contact will be contacted and advised they should self-isolate for the required period of time.”

Further north, Queensland Teachers Union reportedly rejected calls to allow students to come back to school.

In a letter to teachers, QTU general secretary Graham Moloney insisted schools would stay shut to 85 per cent of children for the next three weeks.

Mounting pressure

For weeks, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been trying to coerce state leaders into reopening schools, saying the education of Australian pupils  “hangs in the balance”.

He said he wants all public schools to return to face-to-face learning by June to ensure students don’t fall behind and to alleviate parents from their homeschooling responsibilities so they can return to work.

Mr Morrison has also dangled a carrot of $3.3 billion to encourage private schools to reopen soon, offering early payment if they get students back into classrooms within a month.

And his plan appears to have worked: Mr Tehan said 1500 out of 2500 private schools had taken up the incentive to reopen their classrooms.

Fellow Liberal MPs, like Victorian shadow planning minister Tim Smith, have also been piling criticism on state leaders.

Commonwealth medical advice is that schools are considered low-risk and children are not regarded as super spreaders of COVID-19.

States and territories

Victoria has remained firm about wanting students to stay home for the foreseeable future.

Victorian state schools, which remain open, have been running online learning for up to 97 per cent of students this term.

There is no date set for children to return to classrooms.

New South Wales is encouraging students to come back to school one day a week from May 11 as part of a staggered arrangement.

Queensland appears to be keeping its schools open only to children of essential workers.

This policy will be reviewed on May 15.

South Australian students were encouraged to return to school last week. They also have the option to work remotely.

Western Australia’s school system is divided, with state schools happily reopening this week, while some private schools backflipping over whether or not to open classrooms.

In Tasmania, schools in the state’s south and north will be open for children of essential workers, and students who cannot learn from home.

Schools in the north-west, where there has been a cluster outbreak connected to a hospital, will be closed in line with the region’s lockdown.

The Northern Territory, with reasonably low case numbers, has declared schools are safe and encouraged students to get back in the classroom.

The ACT has set up nine hub schools for children who cannot learn from home – the rest will be rolling up to e-classrooms this week for term 2.