Is an orderly return to school achievable?

Since COVID-19 shut down schools in March, the world of education has looked very different for everyone.

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Since COVID-19 shut down schools in March, the world of education has looked very different for everyone. 

Teachers rushed to transition to remote learning. Students set up their new study spaces. And parents braced for the chaos of teaching and working from home. 

The pressure placed on teachers since early March has been immense. We’ve been planning lessons, printing packets to send home and learning new technologies, all while trying to keep some sort of educational continuity. 

We’re operating in a completely new world. One where we can’t rely on our past experiences to make quick decisions. We don’t know what’s going to work and what’s not. 

To say this has caused stress is an understatement. Add to that the confusing health advice and increasing pressure to re-open the school gates, and well… it’s not been an easy few weeks.

But things were made even more confusing in the last week, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison commented that schools could start returning to physical classes on a staggered basis as early as mid-May.

It feels a bit like the rug has been pulled from under us again. Just as we’re getting used to remote learning, we’re told to start planning for a staggered return.

But should we be going back? And what will a ‘staggered return’ look like anyway?

Is it time to reopen?

For some of us, returning to the classroom is great news. For others, there’s a little hesitation — mostly due to confusing health advice.

Do we need to maintain social distancing rules in the classroom (good luck!)? And why can our students play in the playground but not at the local park? Is it really safe for us to return?

A recent Q+A episode tackled exactly these questions, with a panel that included Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth, Secretary NSW Department of Education Mark Scott, and Principal of Whittlesea Secondary College (a Maths Pathway school) Lian Davies.

Dr Nick Coatsworth, explained that health advice regarding school closures has been consistent all along — schools should remain open. This is because the effect of closing schools is thought to have a limited impact on the spread of COVID-19. 

But with different states doing different things, it hasn’t always seemed consistent. And for most schools across the country, classrooms are closed and students are learning from home.

With Term 2 upon us, health officials are referencing a study based out of NSW in which the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance probe tracked 18 cases of COVID-19 found in NSW schools. The researchers tracked 9 teachers and 9 students as well as their 863 close contacts. They found only 2 additional cases of COVID-19, both were students.

According to the Secretary NSW Department of Education, Mark Scott, this mirrors research from across the world.

But questions have quickly popped up about the sample size in the study, as well as what opening up schools will mean for the adults that will be there. Because being back in the classroom means teachers, support staff and parents will all be back on school grounds too. After all, schools are workplaces as well as small communities. 

This is where social distancing comes in. Teachers are being told to keep their distance from other adults, avoid the staffroom, wipe down classrooms and practice good hygiene. State governments are also talking about providing extra sanitizer and cleaning support to further resource this. 

For some teachers, this isn’t enough. Increased exposure is stressful, on top of everything else that’s currently expected of them. And it’s causing even more confusion between the health advice for teachers versus the health advice for everyone else.

After all, if a teacher can’t see their grandkids, how can they be expected to teach their class?

Health officials maintain that those who are vulnerable within the community, including those who are also teachers, should not be put at risk by returning to the classroom. Other duties should be sought to keep them safe.

And as for the playground example; why can students play on a playground in the school yard, but not at their local park? Again, health officials say advice here is consistent. Playgrounds accessible to the public, including open playgrounds in schools, should not be used by students. Only those that can be cleaned regularly. 

But it’s still no wonder that teachers are worried. At the end of the day, if the rest of the country isn’t going back to work, should teachers?

This is where the staggered approach comes in. A gradual transition back to ‘normal’ that can be controlled. What that actually looks like is another question entirely. 

What exactly is an orderly return? 

For some schools a staggered return might involve having Year 12s come back to school one day a week to begin with. Or it might mean 10 students from each class are allowed to return at a time. 

For every school, it will raise questions about the right approach. The students to ‘prioritise’, as well as which staff will return. Logistically, it’s complicated. 

Especially if teachers are put in a position where they’re expected to teach some of their class remotely and others in person. Workloads are already crazy, how can it be possible to manage that even if it’s only temporary? 

It seems that no one really knows how to best tackle the orderly return. But it will certainly be an interesting time for the teachers and school leaders who are doing their best to make it work. And make it work for everyone, while keeping the school community healthy. 

Teachers will make it happen

At the end of the day, teachers will make it happen. They will get the job done. Because they always do. 

It’s frustrating. Infuriating at times. But it’s true. No matter what is thrown at teachers they always seem to find a way. 

And that should give us confidence. Our students will be alright, because teachers across Australia have and will continue to fight hard for them. To give them the best possible educational outcomes in spite of all this. 

To teachers, we want to say thank you. For everything.

And remember, you can only do what you can do right now. You’ve not navigated this terrain before. Just like your first year out, it isn’t about getting every single thing perfect, it’s about trying your best to nail the basics first. The rest will fall into place.

So if that online class you ran was a disaster, or that lesson plan just didn’t work in a remote context, don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re doing your best and that’s all your students need right now.

So, thanks again teachers — your commitment to the education of our young people has not gone unnoticed.

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