Fury is increasing among students, families and school staff in New South Wales over the government’s plan for Year 12 students and their teachers to return to school while the coronavirus outbreak remains out of control.
Many are dumbfounded that students and staff will be forced on 16 August into poorly ventilated school buildings for revision and trial exams. The announcement came as the government also revealed that 25 percent of active COVID-19 cases in Greater Sydney are aged nineteen or under, despite most not being in school for the last five or six weeks. That’s more than 560 young people—a number that is growing every day.
The overwhelming majority of Year 12 students will be unvaccinated. So will most of the teachers and other staff. All 19,000 students from the eight most COVID affected Sydney local government areas will receive their first jab from 9 August, but they can expect 35 percent protection from symptomatic infection, according to research from Public Health England, where living with the Delta virus has caused a spike in hospitalisations and deaths. And even that limited protection will not kick in until a week after the return to school. For the other 51,000 students, there will be no vaccination at all.
Scant protection also awaits the thousands of school staff scrambling to get a dose of either AstraZeneca or Pfizer in the next few days—which is especially galling because many have been on vaccination waiting lists for weeks or months and were denied the “essential worker” status their unions campaigned for.
No alternative to attending school has been announced for staff with medical conditions that make them more vulnerable, nor for those with unvaccinated children or family members, nor for those caring for their vulnerable elderly relatives, nor for pregnant teachers who have been advised not to get vaccinated yet.
In little more than two weeks, thousands of students and staff every day will travel across Sydney, many using public transport, to sit in their poorly ventilated classrooms adhering to hastily constructed “COVID safe” plans—which are, bizarrely, still based on the 1.5 metre rule for social distancing, a measure wholly inadequate against a strain that some studies suggest leads to 1,000 times more particles in patients’ airways than the Wuhan strain.
“This will expose students, teachers and families to increased risks of infection and transmission”, Australian Medical Association President Omar Khorshid and AMA NSW President Danielle McMullen said in a 30 July media release calling for tighter lockdown restrictions generally and for the state government to scrap its return to school plan.
Cynical posturing about concerns for people’s mental health has been a feature of the state government’s defence of the increasingly derided scheme. But the hypocrisy of the Liberals claiming to be the champions for the education of students in the most COVID affected areas takes the cake. More than a year after the first nationwide lockdown exposed the digital divide between rich and poor students, there are thousands of students, concentrated especially in western and south-western Sydney, who live in overcrowded conditions and still do not have their own laptops or reliable internet access.
More broadly, the number of demountable schools in NSW public schools increased by 45 percent between 2014 and 2020 while capital funding for private schools increased tenfold from $11.7 million a year in 2014/15 to $125 million a year on average now, according to research published by the New South Wales Teachers Federation last November.
Yet opponents of the return to school plan are the ones accused of not caring about students. For the record, social media is alight with Year 12 students raging at the prioritisation of exams over their health. As one signatory to a petition launched by sixteen Year 12 students put it last week, “Life is worth more than the HSC”.
There are many safe alternatives to trials and on-site exams. Education Minister Sarah Mitchell need only read student HSC Facebook pages to find some creative ideas. ACT schools manage to graduate students every year without final exams, for example.
NSW schools are awash with evidence about the attainment of this year’s group of Year 12s—many have completed five or six formal assessments over the past eighteen months. Their teachers know how they’re progressing through the syllabus and can be trusted to assess their performance. Moderation procedures would be straightforward to establish and a whole lot safer than sending thousands travelling across the city while the virus continues to spread.
Teachers struggle with lockdowns as much as anyone. We prefer face-to-face teaching because interacting with students is the best part of the job and learning is best done in an interactive way. But the loss of a few months now is a small price to pay compared to hospitalisations and deaths of colleagues, students and their families, or the health consequences for the one in five victims who will end up with so-called long COVID.
The simple truth is that Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Health Minister Brad Hazzard want to use our young people and school staff as guinea pigs. They want a test case to give them information about how soon they can lift lockdown restrictions. It will be down to teachers, students and families to stop them.
It can be done. Teachers and parents in the United Kingdom led a magnificent fight to stop schools reopening in January. Groups such as Parents for a Safe Return campaigned against the lies that young people were unlikely to become seriously ill with COVID-19. The biggest union representing school staff galvanised its membership to resist the Tory government’s premature reopening. More than 400,000 people watched or participated in a mass online union meeting where it was agreed to resist the unsafe return. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to back down and schools remained closed for at least six weeks.
The New South Wales Teachers Federation and the Independent Education Union NSW should do likewise. We need a union-led campaign against the reopening. And we need it now.