School’s back in the ACT with a Term 2 like no other, and online learning is suddenly the norm for most of the Territory’s students.
This signals the next phase of managing the formal education of our young people through the COVID-19 pandemic. The process has been contentious and challenging. Unlike many other areas of this crisis, schooling has been the focus of different advice and views from medical experts and political leaders.
It was only a couple of months ago that debate was raging about whether or not schools should be open at all. In the end, we got to a situation where most schools moved to a ‘pupil-free arrangement’. While extremely challenging for many families, there was a high level of support for this move, particularly given the valid concerns of teachers who were at the front line managing a highly infectious virus in an environment that sees the congregation of many individuals.
Now as we head into a new term, there is still very confusing and seemingly contradictory advice. This is an issue where there seems to be a clear split between the views of State and Territory Governments who are responsible for delivering public education, and the Commonwealth Government.
The Commonwealth Government’s recent messaging, including advice that activities that have been stressed as important to stop outside a school environment are now deemed safe inside a school environment, does nothing to help the situation. While the evidence suggests that children and young people are at lesser risk of the virus (while recognising a recent UK health alert about serious subsequent health effects in children from COVID-19), we also know that schools are places where adults congregate – teachers, teachers aides, support staff – as well as parents and carers.
This health crisis is moving quickly and we are learning more about it all the time. It was reassuring to see the results of a study in NSW schools that suggested no students infected teachers; however, in a connected world, we also hear of other situations such as the case of a school in Auckland which has seen one of the largest clusters of COVID-19 cases in New Zealand.
There is also reporting out of New York that 65 Department of Education employees (including 25 teachers) have died from COVID-19. In light of this information, it’s surprising and frankly unsettling to hear some people so definitively declare that schools are safe. Less surprising is the concern expressed by teachers about moving too quickly back to normal classes prior to a vaccine being available.
With still so much to learn about coronavirus, it’s difficult to argue against the current approach taken by the ACT. This doesn’t mean it is easy for students and families, but it is an approach that is aiming to meet different needs in difficult circumstances.
Larger jurisdictions have to deal with the challenges of distances and sheer numbers. However, here in Canberra, teachers, the Education Directorate and the government have done good work to get our students ready to learn in an online environment.
Teachers have been working tirelessly over the last few weeks to get things in place to deliver curriculum and classes online. The government has reached out to help students without access to the internet or devices to get these in place before the beginning of the new school term.
While different from usual arrangements, the hub school model has been put in place to provide options for parents who have essential roles and cannot support their children learning at home. These are aiming to balance the need for appropriate supervision, while not asking teachers to deliver a hybrid model of online and face-to-face learning.
Having had a taste of supporting students to learn from home in the weeks leading up to the school holidays, there is no denying it’s tough – for parents, students and teachers. The hub model will also be challenging for children and families asked to engage with unfamiliar schools and support staff. It’s not an ideal situation but living through this public health crisis has meant that we have had to quickly introduce new ways of doing things. There is little doubt that teachers have done an extraordinary job in doing all they can to support the learning of their students and support families manage this situation.
As we’re in the first days of this new phase, it will be important to listen, learn and adapt. Whether or not we are supporting our kids at home, or engaging in the hub school model, there will different experiences and impacts for different groups of students and families. We do need to be flexible as issues emerge. It will be important to listen to children, parents and teachers about how the process is working and how we can improve it if needed.
How was your family’s experience of the first week back at school?
Rebecca is an ACT Greens candidate for Kurrajong in the upcoming Territory election