The ACT government is encouraging parents to keep their children home from school from Tuesday, but insists that "no student will be turned away" if they have to attend.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Education Minister Yvette Berry spent Monday attempting to explain the status of Canberra's schools amid widespread confusion among parents and teachers about new measures to slow the spread of coronavirus.
The ACT Education Directorate seemingly added to the confusion by advising that students weren't allowed to attend schools during the "pupil-free" period, a position which was in direct contradiction to comments made by Mr Barr and Ms Berry on Monday.
The peak body for public school parents has blasted the government's handling of the situation, saying it was "unacceptable" that key details were still unclear just hours before the partial closures were due to come into effect.
The ACT government announced on Sunday afternoon that public and non-government schools will have "pupil-free" days from Tuesday until school holidays, giving teaching staff and students time to prepare for the shift to remote learning.
The announcement came just hours before the national cabinet comprising Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the state and territory leaders, including Mr Barr, was scheduled to meet to plot the next steps in the fight against COVID-19.
After the meeting, Mr Morrison said schools should remain open for parents who wanted to send their children.
As confusion swirled over what Mr Morrison's comments meant for the ACT, the territory's Education Minister, Yvette Berry, issued a late night statement confirming it would proceed with pupil-free days from Tuesday.
Asked on Monday why the ACT government made its announcement before the national cabinet meeting, Mr Barr suggested that the territory couldn't afford to wait.
He acknowledged that the decision created confusion, but said that could be rectified by the leaders meeting more frequently. He said Mr Morrison had now agreed to bring forward scheduled meetings to respond to rapidly-evolving situations.
"In light of what happened late on Sunday night, in terms of a sense of confused messaging, we can do better, and we will," he said.
Mr Barr and Ms Berry have both stressed that the schools would not be completely shut from Tuesday, with the territory moving towards the UK model of schools remaining open for children of "essential workers". These would include teachers, aged care workers and healthcare professionals.
Ms Berry also added that "no child would be turned away" if, for whatever reason, they needed to attend school.
"That could be for a number of reasons, it could be because they [parents] needed to work ... it could be because they are a single parent," she said.
At 10.30am on Monday, the ACT Education Directorate published advice on its website stating that children cannot attend school during the pupil-free period. The Canberra Times saw emails from principals to parents which included the same advice.
At a media conference early on Monday afternoon, Ms Berry said she "wasn't aware of any information from the directorate" regarding such advice. But she said she was aware of some "unfortunate messaging from the school community" which she hoped to clarify as soon as possible.
The directorate's website was updated late on Monday afternoon, removing the section which advised parents that they couldn't send their children to school.
Ms Berry said keeping students at home would give teaching staff the time to develop an online curriculum.
She said teachers had in the past week been stretched between students in the classroom and at home, as parents started pulling their children out of school as a precaution.
ACT Council of Parents and Citizens Associations president Kirsty McGovern-Hooley said parents remained "very confused about what to do next".
Ms McGovern-Hooley said it was "unacceptable" that the government hadn't clarified exactly which occupations were "essential" until Monday afternoon.
"We really need to allow workplaces and families more than half a day to figure theses things out," she said. "Parents are asking, 'Do I need to quit my job?', 'Do I need to take leave without pay from my job?'.
Ms McGovern-Hooley said parents were confused by the seemingly contradictory messages from Mr Morrison and the ACT government on Sunday.
"We're getting mixed-messages, and unclear messages. Stop using terms like 'pupil free days'. They need to say in a much clearer way whether or not a school is closed."
Australian Education Union ACT branch secretary Glenn Fowler was comfortable with the decision to move to pupil-free days, saying it provided a degree of certainty for teachers.
But Mr Fowler said his members were still not clear about which students would be attending school during this period. Teachers were also not sure about staffing arrangements during the partial shutdown, he said.
"We are asking the government to be as clear as possible as soon as possible," he said.
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