SCHOOLS OF CONFLICT

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By AJ Place

Self isolation, social distancing, quarantine, remote learning, it’s the latest dialect. We use these words like we’ve always thrown them around in everyday chat. We’re an adaptable lot; willing to stay home and fall in line with the directives to keep us safe and hopefully see us through to the other side. Well, most of us are. It’s a weird thing to see the impatient, selfish or the self appointed privileged, hen peck the rules that suit them or shimmy their way through the loop holes. We’re all in this together is the (grating) mantra of the times, except when we’re not.

I’m thankful to be living in Victoria, with tough restrictions and a measured approach to easing these. I am grateful our state government has resisted calls for schools to swiftly return to fully school based learning. I know not everyone feels this way.

It’s very early days in understanding this novel virus and there have been some substantial stuff ups across the globe and closer to home, through misjudgment or making assumptions. As winter approaches and the usual bugs do their cold weather jig across classrooms, I hoped this directive remained. Winter increases time indoors on days it is too wet to take breaks in the schoolyards. Last week it was reiterated, Victoria was standing firm; term two would continue remote learning for the duration, for those who are able to keep kids schooling from home and school support given, for those who couldn’t. A recent announcement of wider testing has raised the possibility for an earlier return to classrooms. It’s unsettling, this flip flopping; the messaging gets messy.

I am not sure how teachers and schools became a continuous headline of these times. Aren’t we all being told not to hang around in large or even small, groups?

Teachers are educators, not childcarers. They have no personal protective equipment, are not healthcare workers trained in cross infection and spend whole days of continuous contact with, depending on age, groups of hygiene minimalists, with lower levels of spatial awareness and an unreliable grasp on the concepts of consequence and impulse control. It may not be ideal for children to learn remotely or for teachers to be teaching this way but much in these times is less than ideal. To suggest children are missing out on an education is untrue; teachers are possibly more available to their students than ever. Teachers are working their butts off to deliver lessons remotely to do their job – provide education.

The PM personally appealed to teachers to return to their classrooms so, ‘Parents don’t have to choose between putting food on the table and children’s education’, while knowing, ‘Teachers don’t want to force those choices onto parents either’. This is somewhat disingenuous; teachers aren’t the decision makers on schools being open, closed or teaching remotely. It feeds into the narrative of holding teachers responsible for decisions made by governments or school boards; reflected in commentary calling teachers ‘precious’ or ‘gutless’, who just want more holidays and don’t care enough about the children; selfishly placing their own welfare ahead of their students. School is not shut. 

He also says he knows they want to be there for those vulnerable kids and for parents who need to be at work, which the schools are. This feels reminiscent of another recent crisis when it was said; volunteer firefighters wanted to be out there fighting the fires. Except then some said, they really didn’t. Way back then, when the fires burned for months, we were regularly reminded bushfire management was a state issue – as is education, but it feels a lot like interference is being run at federal level.

Possibly the most confusing of all, the 1.5metre and four square metre distancing rules are ‘not appropriate and not required’ in school classrooms. Wait, what? This wily little virus knows it’s a school and to keep its distance? Teachers, cleaners, admin staff and students of all ages, are only susceptible to its contagious ways outside the school grounds?  Of course, as in any large group, there are teachers, school staff and parents who feel comfortable with this. The conflicting messages are however murky. Parliament was until very recently, suspended until August, though limited sitting days have just been scheduled in May.

There is general consensus, now is not the time for politics but that doesn’t preclude the need for robust discussion and critical thinking, as this evolving event reveals itself further. Confusing directives and inconsistency creates uncertainty and sows seeds of doubt over other restrictions; it’s a slippery slope. It’s not easy to keep your foot on the brake when it feels like we’re doing so well and there’s an increasing restlessness to get back to some sense of normality.

Teachers have as much right to protect their health as other workers, which includes protecting that of vulnerable members of the community. Push this agenda too hard and continue the denigration and many teachers might decide their only option for mental and physical self protection is to walk away from the profession. Health versus economy; a divisive battle.

Given the oft reported asymptomatic status and very mild symptoms many children have, some less than reassuring incidents in other countries, and studies still in very early stages done under limited conditions, opinion on whether children are unlikely to spread the virus, is incomplete. The federal advice, as of today, has said there is no risk to children at school but also said the wider testing won’t include children. School aged ‘children’ covers a sweeping range of ages and behaviours. The state government here is taking a more cautious approach; recognising research to date is limited, with cases traced back to schools in Victoria and waiting longer to review what broader testing reveals. While we are told children may be less vulnerable to poor virus outcomes, pre-existing, underlying health conditions are not always known; how each child may fare is undetermined. It seems far from clear cut.

The ‘experts’ are divided, though it seems a bit early to be using the term expert too freely. Those who make the decisions federally, determine the advice is one of safety for the children, while also acknowledging it is not necessarily the case for the teachers, staff or parents. There have been many others, including specialist medical practitioners, who don’t make the decisions, stating unequivocally they would not be sending their children to school. This position is replicated globally.

Parents have options for risk assessment in relation to their children, teachers less so. If staff feel unsafe, given the federal narrative, are they susceptible to coercion to attend school? Who decides on the health exemption criteria; the school principal, government, the staff member? I guess these are questions many workers will face as attendance back at the workplace is reinstated.

By term three, we may be a little wiser, safer, in our acquired knowledge. For a limited period, while the next few cold months play out and just to double check that flattening curve that aligned with school holidays, doesn’t take a turn upwards now holidays are done. It’s hard to step back, if we jump too soon. This seemed to be the, reassuring, approach in Victoria.

It may even be that this is an opportunity to look at things differently, shake up the status quo. Some kids who have been victims of school based bullying are having their best school days ever.

I accept we have to put some trust in our leaders to act in the best interests of the nation they lead, with the best information, but we also need to feel safe in their directives and consider what is being asked of us, especially when the state and federal leaders diverge. It’s not a one size fits all event and for me, there have been some trust issues around judgement lapses, preceding this.

As an ex healthcare worker, I would expect to be at the frontline of this thing but as a parent, I wouldn’t expect my kid’s teachers to be. It only took one person to start this damn mess.

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