Prior to any discussion about the opening of schools and childcare centres, it is critical to understand a couple of things.
The first is that, no teacher in either sector resents being at work to care for the children of nurses, doctors, paramedics and any of the other professions associated with health care. These people are heroes. They are at the frontline of the battle to contain this pandemic and daily make extraordinary sacrifices. Many are being billeted in hotels for the protection of their own families and themselves. Reports of members of the public abusing healthcare workers who left the hospital wearing scrubs must go down as the blackest of moments in our response to this situation.
Nothing in the rest of this article detracts from this fundamental truth.
Likewise, there is no teacher who would deny the safety that the classroom provides for some children.
However, teachers do object to being used by parents who can’t be bothered looking after their own children. If you can be at home, then your children should be home too. Teachers and early childhood educators are professionals with years of training and expertise. They are not government funded babysitters.
The second thing we need to understand is that we actually do not know how this virus is going to behave. No-one knew about it before December 2019. That is just over four (4) months ago. Yes, there are people who understand viruses, they can make guesses based on what appears to be happening, but we just don’t know.
Despite what Morrison and the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for the Australian Government, Professor Brendan Murphy say, they do not know how the virus is going to affect children.
Medical professionals don’t all agree.
In an interview with the BBC last week, Andrew Pollard, professor of paediatric infection and immunity at the University of Oxford said that while it was thought at the beginning that children were not getting infected, that is now believed to be untrue. According to Pollard “It’s just that when they do get the infection, they get much milder symptoms.” He went on to say that the data was possibly biased because testing has only been done on patients who have displayed symptoms and many children don’t. They have also identified increased risk to infants and preschoolers.
Sanjay Patel, a paediatric infectious diseases consultant at Southampton Children’s Hospital supports this theory and has said that he believes that ‘more children are infected than we think. We are not testing every child in the country.’
Graham Roberts, director of the David Hide Asthma and Allergy Research Centre, in Newport, UK. points out that ‘the virus is so new that we don’t really know.’ Roberts goes further, saying that while children may not appear sick, they can definitely carry the disease and infect others.
‘What people are forgetting is that children are probably one of the main routes by which this infection is going to spread throughout the community.’ He argues that schools closing is crucial to reducing the rate of spread of the pandemic.
That children can and do catch the disease is clear in the case of the American mother who unknowingly infected 17 of her children. Brittany Jencik, whose 18 children, (some adopted) still lived at home, had contracted the virus and by the time she was tested it was found that the disease had already spread to 17 of her children. Jencik employed a cleaning company to sterilise the house and they were all kitted out in hazmat suits.
I wonder how many parents can afford that. And will our schools be cleaned to that level?
The extent of contamination in New York is staggering and they are burying hundreds of people every day. Dr. Dyan Hes, a paediatrician with New York City’s Gramercy Paediatrics, argues that the numbers given for children with the virus are completely wrong. He warns that the idea that children are immune is not true. Children do catch it, and they transmit it, and some have died.
Also, in New York, it was reported on April 14th that 50 NYC education employees, including at least 21 public school teachers, had already died of Covid-19.
Peter Collignon, professor of infectious diseases at the Australian National University medical school, believes that while children may not get as ill as others, they will still get infected. He also admitted to being confused, that keeping schools open was contradictory to other advice. People are being told to stay home if they can, that if they can work at home they should work at home, they should not travel except for essentials, yet schools should be open. Gatherings of more than 100, then 50, then 10 were banned, yet children could all go to school where the gatherings are usually much bigger than that.
Chris Blyth, a paediatric infection specialist from the University of Western Australia and the Telethon Kids Institute, says that just because children are not showing symptoms doesn’t mean they are not getting the disease. Importantly, he says, as do other medical personnel, ‘we don’t know the answer to that at this stage.’
And again, Dr. Jeffrey Burns, chief of critical care at Boston Children’s Hospital said that, they don’t yet understand why children are getting it as easily as anyone else, but not getting as critically ill. ‘It’s still a mystery,’ he said.
The simple truth is that nobody knows how the disease is working in children and teachers have every right to be concerned.
That the PM does not acknowledge teacher concerns is bad enough, that his actions seem designed to make them feel guilty for being concerned is egregious.
On April 10th, Julio Vincent Gambuto published an article saying that advertisers and politicians are about to bombard us with ways we can return to ‘normal.’ They will do this by using our hopes and fears against us in ways that make us doubt ourselves and, against our better judgement, trust them.
The aim will be to convince you that you need to return to a ‘normal’ that is beneficial to them. If you question them, if you raise concerns about the old ‘normal,’ they will find ways of making you doubt yourself. Doubt your judgement, doubt your memory, doubt your capacity for critical thinking.
Gambuto warns us to prepare for when this starts to happen.
I would argue that, in Australia it already has. A stunning example of the phenomenon was displayed by our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison on the 15th of April, and it was directed at the preferred scapegoats of the old ‘normal’ – teachers.
To understand how despicable the Prime Minister’s attempt at gaslighting our teachers was, it is necessary to understand how schools and early childhood centres actually function. It is also essential to understand the make-up of the workforce.
I am not sure what the PM was thinking when he decided to video a nauseating message to teachers, pleading for them to keep the schools open. I understand that it could be good from a marketing perspective, but it displayed a significant lack of understanding of the intended audience.
For starters, teachers do not make the decision about whether schools stay open or not. In public schools it is the state government or department and in private schools it would be the school board.
For starters, teachers do not make the decision about whether schools stay open or not. In public schools it is the state government or department and in private schools it would be the school board. Click To Tweet
Furthermore, a rudimentary scan of curriculum documents would have shown him that students are taught at a very early stage to question and deconstruct what people are saying. And the work is often done through analysing advertisements. That he thought for a moment that the obsequious tone and faulty logic would fool teachers is worrying in a head of government.
For me though, the very worst of it was that it is the only time he actually admitted that teachers are valuable. In all of the public addresses about schools the PM has made it clear that schools need to be open to help the economy. To ensure that parents can go to work. Never, has he said that the schools should be kept open to assist with student learning. And he can’t say that because student learning is still happening. Teachers have pulled off an extraordinary feat. In a ridiculously short period of time they redesigned their teaching programs to go online.
Most teachers were not trained in this, but they did it anyway.
For him to suggest that teachers are not concerned about student learning is just wicked. And it feeds into a history of teacher bashing that was evident in the old ‘normal.’ A significant element of gaslighting is to make the victim believe that they are the ones in the wrong. That they can’t trust their own judgement.
By choosing teachers, who have been accustomed to being undervalued, he displays another classic element of gaslighting: making others think you are crazy. By ‘appealing’ to teachers, who have no authority in the matter, he sets it up for other people to blame teachers. This undermines their professionalism and makes their concerns seem like unjustified paranoia.
Not content with gaslighting teachers, the PM has taken advantage of the fact that many of us don’t fully understand the politics of education. This allowed him to manipulate us for almost 2 months.
Federation and Education Politics
Before 1901, there were six (6) British self-governing colonies in what we now call Australia. They were Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia. The colonies were responsible for making their own laws and taking care of their own people.
In 1901, these six colonies agreed to come together and form the Commonwealth of Australia. The colonies became the states, and while there was now a federal government, the states maintained their governing authority over most of the issues affecting their people. The most significant being health, education and policing. We call the leader of the federal government our Prime Minister and the leader of the state government is a Premier.
Tertiary education was initially a state issue. After WWII, funding of tertiary institutions was increasingly taken over by the federal government, until in the 1970s, tertiary education became the responsibility of the federal government. The federal government is also responsible for pre-school childcare centres. This is why they can promise more childcare workers and force the centres to open, with little regard for the welfare of the primarily female workforce.
The government of NZ is being far more circumspect in relation to childcare centres. Dr Mike Bedford said that “social distancing” is impossible in day-care because pre-schoolers “need to be held, need to have cuddles and play close to each other.” He believes that an early opening of early childhood centres could pose a huge risk to the community.
Back here in Australia K-12 education remains a state issue. Decisions about schools are made by state governments and the federal government has no authority under law.
Politically the states function with the same party distinctions as the federal government. The two (2) main parties being the Liberal/National Party and the Australian Labour Party. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that there is the potential for trouble in situations like the one we are currently in. There is a federal government of one party and a few state governments of the other.
Particularly when it is the federal government that collects taxes and chooses where to distribute them. The recent sports grant fiasco is a case in point.
So how is that playing out in the time of Covid-19?
Open or Closed
It is worth mentioning that our Prime Minister took quite a long time before he acknowledged the sole authority of the states, in regard to whether schools stay open or not.
Up until last week the impression he was giving was that he had the authority over schools opening and that the Premiers in Victoria and Queensland were being difficult. As we saw previously, that medical professionals don’t have a complete picture of how this virus manifests, his constant reiteration that schools are ‘safe’ is based on incomplete evidence and displays a criminal lack of understanding of how schools work.
On the same day that the WA minister for education was saying that they had lots of halls and verandahs to put the students in, the PM was saying that he didn‘t want his girls stuck in a hall on a device. He wanted them in a classroom with a teacher. Unless he is planning on moving to somewhere else in NSW, he is going to be disappointed, as the ACT government said yesterday that the schools would be locked down for at least two more months.
I do have momentary sympathy for the NSW Government. While the states with ALP governments are maintaining restricted school opening, poor Gladys Berejiklian, a LNP Premier, is having to come up with plans to reopen the schools in Term 2. The suggested staggered timetables boggle the mind. They also create a situation where teachers are trying to do three (3) jobs simultaneously. They must prepare online learning for those who stay home, face to face lessons for students who come to school, and some other kind of learning for students who don’t come to school but don’t have access to internet and devices.
Unfortunately, in the absence of good political leadership the decision about sending students to school is being left completely up to the parents. They do not have to give any notice about whether their children are going to be at school or not. How teachers are supposed to create meaningful learning under those conditions is unclear.
The latest news out of SA, also an LNP state, despite getting positive test results in a school, beggars’ belief.
If there is evidence needed that our federal government doesn’t value the professionalism of teachers, then there it is.
Morrison saying, “I’m thinking about teachers in the same way I’m thinking about paramedics, about nurses, about doctors … these are critical people in our community at this time,” is ludicrous under the circumstances.
Helping the PM understand how schools function.
Caveat – Just as there are no ‘standard’ children, there are no ‘standard’ schools. There are similarities though.
Schools are filled with people. Adults and children.
At the beginning of the day there are lines of parents dropping their children off, these children will immediately run to their group of friends and huddle.
As it gets closer to the time of the first bell, the students, still in huddles, will meander closer to their classrooms. As their teachers greet them and call them into the rooms mild chaos occurs, they pour into the classroom, find the allocated spot for their backpacks, grab their books and equipment and sit at their desks. Then learning happens.
According to an administrator I asked, there are expected space allowances for students in a classroom in Australia. Classrooms need to be approximately 35 square metres with an allowance of ¾ a square metre for each child to sit. Staff Rooms also have a minimum space requirement of 1.5 square metres per person/desk.
Obviously, there are going to be variations, particularly with some of the beautiful old buildings, but these are the standards.
One of the many inaccuracies of the PM’s messages is the one about teachers being more at risk in the staff room than they are with the students. Again, he is obviously clueless about how schools function.
Teachers are rarely in the staffroom en masse. There will be short times in the morning as they get ready, though they are more likely to be out photocopying things for their classes, speaking with students outside the staffroom, doing yard duty or on a phone calling a parent. From the time of the first bell until the end of the day, teachers will rotate through the staffroom as their timetable and class load dictates. Any assumption that teachers are all sitting around cosily in the staffroom is stuff of fiction.
It is extraordinarily rare for a school to have rooms that are regularly spare. In secondary schools there are science labs and other tech spaces that may be empty sometimes due to safety issues, but general classrooms are rarely empty.
This begs the question, if we need to do physical distancing, with the suggested limit of 10 students to a classroom, where are we going to put the others?
I listened to the WA minister the other day. She was saying that they had been in touch with ‘all’ the schools and that ‘all’ the schools had plenty of spare space that could accommodate a return to school while maintaining physical distance. She mentioned halls and covered verandahs. She did not mention how teachers were going to manage to teach individual classes when 2/3rds of their students were spread through an assembly hall or arranged on the verandahs of buildings.
I know schools have changed since I was last teaching, but I haven’t heard of whole scale rewiring of halls and verandahs to provide points for computer and device use.
But even if we could manage all of those inconveniences, what do we do with the students?
It is possible the PM’s ignorance comes from only having 2 girls, maybe they are remarkably compliant. But I had boys and have taught mainly in co-educational settings and I can assure you that physical distancing would be almost impossible to maintain.
What most parents and teachers know is that children are grotty. They are snotty and grotty, and they can rarely keep their hands to themselves, far less keep distant. In primary it is likely that the genders may stay away from each other to avoid getting girl or boy germs, but that does not last long.
What most parents and teachers also know is that schools are like petri dishes. The snottiness and grottiness are what allow our children to build their immune systems. School children get sick. Mildly mostly. Then they have some immunity. But this only works safely if the population outside of the school, and the adults in the school are already immune. Mostly this happens through vaccination.
It seems to have slipped the mind of our PM that we do not have a vaccine for this virus, and that, as stated above, we really don’t know what it is going to do.
At the end of the day, all those students enter a rugby-like scrum to gather their bags and belongings together before tumbling out of the buildings en masse and racing to be funnelled through the gates to the waiting parents.
While the speed of the end of day evacuation may vary according to age group, the pattern is much the same in each space.
That is a lot of people in relatively small spaces.
Why is it that our politicians can’t go to parliament, but teachers can go to school?
Why is it that our politicians can’t go to parliament, but teachers can go to school? Click To Tweet
I did look up the ABS and try to get the right figures on age and gender for teachers, but I didn’t really understand it. The best I could do was work out that there were roughly 2 female teachers to each male teacher and the average age of teachers in Australia was about 42 years. This puts teachers in the early stages of the ‘sandwich’ generation.
People in this generation are often responsible for caring for their own family while also being responsible for their parents.
So what do teachers in this group do? If the schools are fully open, then the risk to their broader family rises exponentially. Children get infected, show no signs and infect other family members, they then infect their elders who succumb to the disease. Remember the case of the mother in America. She had infected her children before she showed any symptoms at all. It is also worth pointing out that one of the school principals who died in the US was only 42 years old. Not elderly.
Many of our teachers are at risk and we need to acknowledge that. We need to understand why they are so concerned.
Before the Easter shutdown, after Victoria had closed schools and others were still open, there were stories of schools having no hot water in staff rooms, teachers and students being asked to supply their own hand sanitizer because the school had run out of cleaning products.
School toilet blocks do not have hot water for safety reasons, but they often do not have soap or paper towels either.
As for actual PPE gear, like masks, well, dream on.
Teachers have good reason to be angry.
Much of the confusion and ill feeling that is evident in the debate over school opening could have been avoided if the federal government had taken the time to speak with education unions and teachers
I have not spoken to a single teacher, either in Australia or internationally, who didn’t want to get back to their students. Behind the scenes, teachers have come together and freely shared resources and expertise. If the federal government had not been so completely clueless, the combined knowledge, experience and capacity for innovation that exists in our teachers could have been turned toward more valuable solutions.
Much of the confusion and ill feeling that is evident in the debate over school opening could have been avoided if the federal government had taken the time to speak with education unions and teachers. Click To Tweet
The Andrew’s Government in Victoria has dealt with this well. They closed the schools early so teachers would have a chance to prepare for the new method of teaching. They provided large numbers of devices and internet sims for students without access and they never once, in word or deed, disrespected our teachers.
It is a great pity we can’t say the same for our Prime Minister.