Education Minister Yvette Berry has sought to clarify confusion about whether ACT schools are closed due to coronavirus by declaring that no child will be turned away from any ACT public school.
The Catholic school sector has also clarified its position, announcing that its schools will stay open for the rest of the term ahead of moving to online learning in Term 2.
Admitting that NSW’s decision to close its schools had forced the ACT’s hand in moving to pupil-free days and establishing online learning programs, Ms Berry contradicted schools that had messaged parents telling them not to send their children to school this morning.
“Our schools are open, and teachers and school staff will be operating out of our schools where possible,” she said.
If parents needed to send their children to school because they had to work or some other reason, they would be welcomed and would still receive face-to-face teaching.
But with Victoria and NSW pushing to close their schools as part of the campaign to stem the spread of COVID-19, contrary to advice from the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, the ACT could not stand alone and needed to take a regional approach, Ms Berry said.
“We simply have to do that, we can’t be doing this on our own, we’re an island in the middle of NSW,” she said.
Ms Berry insisted that schools were safe but the pupil-free approach would allow teachers to develop alternative programs that would be needed if it did come to a complete lockdown.
ACT Council of Parents & Citizens Associations said earlier today that parents were confused and frustrated with the mixed messages and lack of detail.
They were also concerned about vulnerable students, children of essential workers and parents unable to provide supervision at home, as well as the potential loss of learning time for Year 12 students and implications for their ATAR scores.
Ms Berry said she had been meeting with all stakeholders to address these issues.
She said pressure had already been mounting with 40 per cent fewer students at some ACT Government schools, forcing teachers to cater to both class and online students.
She rejected suggestions that teachers were concerned about their own health and safety.
“What they were worried about was how their students were coping in a school environment, with all the anxiety about the pandemic,” Ms Berry said.
Teachers and school staff would now be developing alternative, age-appropriate online learning programs to be delivered in Term 2. She said the ACT was well positioned to go digital.
The Education Directorate would also be providing assistance to parents so they could help their children adapt to the new learning mode, as well as tablets or laptops to families which needed them.
“We hope to guide parents along the way. Today we released an online library resource to give parents some ideas about what they can do at home while we’re developing this online education,” Ms Berry said.
Ms Berry said there would be follow-up assessments after the crisis had passed to identify any learning gaps as a result of the move to online education.
In a letter to parents, Catholic principals have advised that schools in the Canberra and Goulburn Diocese will remain open until the end of Term 1, including Early Learning Centres and Before and After School Care, but parents may choose to keep their children at home, and schools will also be moving to full online programs in Term 2.