Parents and carers, students and teachers, entire school communities have been launched into chaos and uncertainty over and over again for the past two years, as our schools are closed due to the identification of positive cases of COVID-19.
As we get ready for the new school year in 2022, we must consider whether there is a better way.
When students are unable to attend school, there can be significant impacts on their learning, and their social and emotional wellbeing and development. According to Australian government-commissioned reports, half of all school-aged children are vulnerable to experiencing negative effects from learning at home due to their age, social disadvantage, social needs, or family context. There are also additional burdens placed on parents who have to stay at home to look after and assist their children, while they are also doing their own work. Anyone who has done this juggling act knows just how challenging it can be.
Federal and state governments, as well as the media, are now telling us we just have to learn to live with COVID-19. Yet as part of this "new normal", the extreme measure of closing down entire schools for prolonged periods of time has continued. The national cabinet meeting on Thursday, February 13 established guiding principles for managing COVID in schools, but how these principles will be applied remains uncertain.
Other countries have had some success in controlling outbreaks while trying to keep schools open, through the implementation of a suite of consistent preventative strategies and calibrated responses to mitigate the impact on school education. Should we be looking to them in order to develop new approaches here?
Countries in our own region of Asia, including China, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, have nationally consistent policies and measures to manage schools through the pandemic, including sanitation practices, on-site temperature testing, reorganisation of school and classroom infrastructure and targeting of specific classes and year levels where infections have been identified. Here in Australia, we appear to be playing catch-up yet again when it comes to cutting-edge practice in educational policy and management.
Considering the high vaccination rates in the ACT among secondary school students and teachers, the vaccine now being available for primary students, and the generally mild health impacts of COVID on children, school administrators and leaders should be searching for new and less disruptive ways to manage schools which don't involve wholesale closures.
This shift in strategy will require careful planning and consideration, but it is necessary, as it will not be feasible to keep closing schools every time a COVID case is detected in a school. Otherwise, this level of disruption could go on for years, and have negative outcomes for a generation of students.
In NSW, Victoria and the ACT, school leaders, teachers, parents, carers, and students are exhausted and stressed by what has occurred over the last five to six months, with their schools experiencing prolonged closures followed by rolling closures occurring after lockdowns.
While we can hope and pray that COVID eventually disappears, if it does not, we need to implement safe and innovative measures to keep our schools open.
The goal must be that children return to classes this year to a "new normal" that looks much more like the school year of old, rather than the broken and disjointed 12 months they have been through in 2021.
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