Opinion | Apr 17, 2020

Reopening the schools will let kids learn and get parents back to work

By Dallas McInerney, Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Schools NSW

First published in Financial Review 17/4/2020

In pushing for schools to reopen, Scott Morrison rightly struck a note of caution forthe educational prospects of Australian students. Few would disagree with the goal of having our schools fully engaged with learning, though the timing must be right for school communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest interruption to school delivery in humanhistory. UNESCO reports that  191 countries have implemented some form of school restriction or closure regime, with almost 1.6 billion students (91% of the world’s enrolled student population) either presently out of school or under-schooled. Only in a globalpandemic would we consider this at all acceptable – but for how long?

The interruption to schooling has also created a massive disruption for ourworkforce, on which our economy depends. This has consequences for the overallwellbeing of the community.

The COVID-19 experience has reminded the community of a key economic and social reality—that labour market participation, particularly for frontline workers responding to COVID-19, is tightly connected with the normal operation of our schools.

The discussion has focused on the role of the workforce in supporting the economy, and this is true for many households – their livelihoods and the welfare of their families depend on children being at school and parents being attached to the workforce.

This relationship between schools and workforce participation is neither new norunique to Australia. The long summer vacation in the United States is a partiallegacy of agrarian cycles coinciding with harvests and the need for children towork during that period.

In Australia today, that relationship is inverted. Here, school attendance now supports parental participation in the workforce. Similarly, childcare has played a key role in boosting Australia’s productivity via higher female participation in the workforce.

Recognising the critical role schools have in the nation’s broader prosperity does not dilute their core educational purpose, and the social costs of a prolonged economic slowdown need to be avoided. History shows that the costs include high levels of unemployment and underemployment that can stretch years into the future, which can reflect intergenerational disadvantage for the families affected.

If there is a gift of sorts to be found in COVID-19, it’s that school-age children are not the vectors or “super spreaders” as they were in previous pandemics, such as the Spanish flu. Their risk profile makes them obvious candidates for an earlier return to “normal life” than, say, the elderly or those with pre-existing health conditions.

In the absence of a vaccine or mass testing, we must ask: How do we make our schools safe enough to allow our students to walk through the front gates in these second term and for lessons to resume with well-supported staff?

There are targeted measures that can be considered.

“Take your distance!” is an instruction many would recall from their primary school days. The teacher, standing at the front of messy lines of students, would repeat this call until students lined up straight, in single-fi le rows, “taking their distance” from the student in front by the length of their arms. It was a simple way of imposing order on a rabble of students.

While students might otherwise “take their distance” at assemblies for behavioural reasons, now the aim should be to minimise the per capita contact rate inside schools. Options include anchoring year groups in a single classroom to minimise student movement, no mass gatherings such as assemblies or carnivals, no canteen, no bubblers, no library visits or excursions, enhanced cleaning protocols for the school settings (and school buses!) and longer drop-off and pick-up periods to minimise parent-to-parent contact.

Children from households with at-risk family members might need to continue out-of-school learning for a while longer. Similarly, vulnerable school staff will need to be carefully supported, and testing (and, as necessary, improved protective equipment) for school staff should be considered.

A path back to normal school operations should incorporate recent innovations in digital and online learning; what has been born from necessity can be a vision for the future. There is an opportunity for a framework to emerge that ushers in an era of school-led creativity for 21st-century learning.

Now is the time to move past policy options that offer a false choice between safeguarding public health and a functioning economy. For our dedicated staff and students, term two awaits.

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