The escalating public health emergency in Melbourne has pushed the city back into lockdown. But incredibly, the Victorian government is still requiring staff and senior students to attend school next week.
As news of the Al Taqwa College outbreak (the largest in Victoria at the time of writing, at 119 cases) continues to filter in, Victorian year 11 and 12 students, specialist school students and staff are left to contemplate “business as usual” at the start of term three. Other year levels have been granted a five day holiday extension while the government decides their fate.
The current situation is much worse than the first stage of the pandemic in Australia, which was largely confined to overseas arrivals and their close contacts. Now there is widespread community transmission, including in school communities.
As well as the Al Taqwa College cluster in Melbourne’s west, Aitken Creek Primary School in the northern suburb of Craigieburn is the centre of a cluster of 10 cases, and a total of 29 schools and dozens of childcare centres are shut due to COVID-19 cases.
Unbelievably, the state government has put the VCE results timeline ahead of the health and lives of students and school staff. Premier Daniel Andrews’ argument for this rests on a startling new realisation – apparently, if we don’t act soon, education in Victoria may not be on an equal playing field!
Andrews claims that, in the interest of fairness, there must be total consistency between year 12 students in regional areas and those in metropolitan areas. This, it seems, is an ideal worth sacrificing lives for. But the premier appears to have no problem with bumpiness of the playing field when it comes to the glaring divide between private and public schools, or between schools in wealthy and working-class suburbs.
What’s more, Andrews committed to the current VCE exam date schedule in the middle of the pandemic and in a situation that he admitted was rapidly changing and which would inevitably produce more outbreaks. Now Victoria is in its worst position yet, and schools are being re-opened.
Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has admitted that the Al Taqwa College outbreak involved transmission among senior school students: “They are older kids, they tend to have more transmission that is akin to adults if they’re not doing the physical distancing appropriately.” The students were not distancing, in line with the education department’s insistence up until now (against all science and common sense) that it was not necessary.
If Sutton and Andrews are now changing their advice regarding distancing, then this just begs the further question of whether either of them have ever actually seen a Victorian public school. There is just physically no space for students to distance in classrooms filled with the average 25 students, nor in the corridors, locker bays, offices or canteen lines.
With more and more evidence of aerosol spread of the virus, keeping classes of senior students in closed rooms for up to two hours at a time is an extremely effective way to spread the virus, no matter how they are seated. And on the Friday morning before the Monday students were scheduled to return, schools had still not received the School Operations Guide from the department – not that the Department of Education is known for it’s useful recommendations during this pandemic!
Some are quick to deduce that fewer students on campus will lessen the risk. It will – for some. The risk remains, however, in large cohorts, and is completely unchanged in senior classrooms and senior colleges where all, or close to all, students are in year 11 and 12. No consideration has been made for the six senior schools in metropolitan Melbourne in this situation, several of which are located in the north-west hotspots. In addition, many specialist school students do not understand or cannot physically effect social distancing, meaning teacher aides must work dangerously close with students to cater for their personal needs.
News today is that there will be temperature checks for all staff and students before admission to school grounds. Leave aside the logistical nightmare of doing this for hundreds of students and the crowded bottlenecks this will likely cause at school gates, temperature checks are not a reliable test for carriers of the virus. The Al Taqwa College cluster should at least teach us that lesson where, according to a statement from the College, “Temperature checks on a daily basis were conducted for all staff, students and anyone needing to visit the school… Any staff or student that presented with even the mildest cold and flu symptoms were sent back home as a safety precaution.”
These kinds of precautions will not prevent an outbreak – they are more about the optics of being seen to be doing something. The latest advice is that non-contact temperature checks are not as accurate but contact devices are more time consuming, expensive and, more worryingly, risk cross contamination. Around half of all positive cases have no symptoms, so would not be picked up by temperature checks in any case.
The government feigns concern for student wellbeing and education, yet they are happy to send them into harm’s way, knowing full well that it could mean death or severe long-term illness for students, staff and their families. Each day new information comes out about the lasting effects of those who “recover” from the virus, including the warnings of UK medical scientists of the risk of a wave of COVID-related brain damage. Given all this, you would be forgiven for assuming that an education union might be advocating that their members not be pushed into such demonstrably unsafe situations. While other sectors are told “if you can work from home, you must work from home” the Australian Education Union has been in consultations aimed at “clarifying” some of the finer points of how best to march school staff back into our crowded classrooms. While some of the requests for adequate protective equipment and special payments for casual relief teachers are well overdue, it would stand to reason that when state borders are closed and reinstatement of six week heavy lockdown is occurring that school closures would be the most reasonable demand. Don’t worry – union officials are most certainly working from the safety of their homes.
We are being asked to be the sacrificial lambs, supposedly in the name of education, but really so as to not interrupt the all important process of ranking school leavers. But the value of VCE ATAR scores is not to student learning but to their use as a sorting process for university entrance admissions. In a pandemic, when our lives are on the line, education should be urgently repurposed towards assisting students to keep students and their communities safe, not the warped priorities of justifying social stratification, something we should be critical of at the best of times.
The status quo sees students from wealthy families, with all the access to the resources and cultural-capital privilege affords, competing with the kids of single-parent house-holds, often juggling long hours in part time jobs alongside their study. They all take the same standardised tests and compete for the same university courses, with well documented outcomes.
There are other options that can and should be used to allow year 12 students to receive their ATAR and completion certificates. Exam dates can be changed, the way we assess can be modified. It is possible. Sending them to high risk situations where more outbreaks will occur should not be an option.
Keeping students and teachers at home remains one of the most important public health measures available. There are identical battles being fought in other countries, including the UK and the US. The stakes are just as high in Victoria.
Victorian school teachers have initiated a change.org petition, demanding that students and teachers are not required to attend school in the midst of a public health emergency: https://www.change.org/p/james-merlino-remote-learning-for-all-students-during-lockdown