The NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has announced the partial reopening of schools by 11 May. But are schools ready to reopen and, as the Prime Minister has claimed, does the education of our children really hang in the balance?
IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary, Mark Northam, advises what a safe and orderly transition would look like, and explains what leading education researcher, Professor John Hattie, really has to say about the impact of remote learning.
"The recent announcement by the Premier that schools will partially reopen on Monday 11 May has refocused attention on the unique challenges faced by the education sector throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
"Right from the beginning of the crisis teachers and support staff knew what was required of them, and they were more than willing to do their part in supporting the national effort to combat the virus. All they were asking for was to be kept fully informed and to be given the resources to do their job properly and safely.
"Teachers worked hard in the early days of the crisis developing online modes of delivery as student attendance numbers dropped dramatically. At the same time teachers and support staff continued to work with students who were showing up to school.
"This dual responsibility of delivering both remote and physical lesson effectively doubled the workload of teachers. Staff were obliged to continue working in confined spaces with large numbers of people and inadequate access to PPE. As the crisis deepened IEUA members began reporting significant increases to their stress levels, concerns for their personal health and safety, and concerns for the safety of the family members to which they returned home each night.
Teachers should only teach once
Mark Northam explained that the IEUA strongly argued that there should only be one mode of instruction, that is, that teachers should only be teaching once. "The IEUA’s early position was that the most appropriate form of instruction was a hybrid model whereby all students participated in online instruction. Parents would be free to keep their children at home where appropriate, and schools would continue to provide safe, supervised workspaces for students who, for whatever reason, needed to attend.
"Government decision makers were slow to arrive at this position, but ultimately a hybrid model emerged and was functioning relatively smoothly as Term 1 drew to a conclusion.
Schools and systems did their bit. Teaching and learning continued.
"During the last week of Term 1, and throughout the term break, countless hours of preparation have taken place as teachers and support staff worked to refine their online processes in anticipation of an extended period of remote learning.
"Now schools are told they will be obliged to resume face to face teaching in early term two.
This decision highlights a number of issues, not least of which is the lack of consultation with, and seeming disregard for the professionalism of, teachers and support staff.
Union seeks health and safety assurances
IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary, Mark Northam said "While the IEUA NSW/ACT Branch notes the commitment of the NSW Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell, that appropriate provisions of hygiene resources such as hand sanitisers and soap will be made available, unless the situation has changed significantly over the Easter break many schools will still be hopelessly ill-equipped as Term 2 commences. "And as anyone with even the most limited understanding as to how schools function knows, the concept of social distancing in a school environment brings with it a raft of educational and health concerns.
"So what is the rush to return to fully opened schools? The prime minister has weighed into the debate, making some unhelpful remarks about the nature of online learning and claiming that the education of the nation’s children ‘hangs in the balance’.
"The union agrees that face-to-face teaching is the best way to deliver education, but disagrees with the prime minister’s suggestion that students will ‘miss a year of their education’ as a result of being out of the classroom.
"Meanwhile several media outlets have cited leading education researcher, Professor John Hattie, as evidence that schools must reopen as a matter of urgency. If, as is claimed, the rush to return to face to face teaching is driven by educational imperatives it would do well to look at what the evidence really tells us.
Should schools rush to reopen - where’s the evidence?
Mr Northam said "According to Hattie the evidence is that there is little cause for alarm, either from students having some unanticipated down time, or from extended periods of online, remote, or distance learning.
"Hattie makes the point that the statistical importance of school holidays and the length of a school year on education outcomes are quite low. Additionally, as Australia has one of the longest school days in the world, even an extended period of downtime would still see Australian school children with more in school time than children from countries such as Finland, Korea, and Sweden.
"The evidence also shows, according to Hattie, that the impact of lengthy school shutouts is very low, especially for students below middle school.
"So in short, the message from Hattie is we should not panic, even if children are missing a few days of school.
"But that’s the point. Students are not missing out on even a few days of school. Their education continues and teachers and support staff are working tirelessly to ensure their online experience of education is effective and purposeful.
"Since the very beginning of this crisis schools moved quickly to embrace online forms of instructional delivery, and this is now being successfully implemented. Furthermore, every effort is being made to cater for students who are educationally at risk or who need to attend school due to the work circumstances of their parents. School staff are doing their jobs. Students are being taught.
"Hattie also concludes there is no statistical evidence to suggest that a period of distance education will have a detrimental impact on the nation’s children. What is most important, Hattie states, is the methods of teaching, not the media. The well-established and highly regarded Distance Education programs operating throughout regional and remote Australia stands as testimony to this assertion.
"Teachers have embraced the challenge of remote education with energy and professionalism. As they continue to come to terms with the online environment it can be assumed their methods will improve and their teaching will become even more effective.
Many education workers are themselves in the at risk category or are caring for household members who are at risk. When it is not possible to provide teachers and support staff workers with a safe working environment, and when it is clear they can quite successfully carry out their duties while working from home, it seems absurd to endanger them or their families by prematurely insisting on the resumption of face to face teaching.
Give teachers a seat at the education table
The final message from the IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary, Mark Northam was "If there is a coherent educational argument to be made for reopening schools the union is keen to hear it. No one is keener to see the return of face to face learning than teachers and support staff, but this should not be at the expense of their personal safety.
"A rushed return to face to face teaching risks revisiting the untenable and stressful situation where teachers will again be forced to deliver two modes of instruction, both online and face to face. The IEUA NSW/ACT Branch is seeking assurances from the Minister that this will not be the case.
"The union strongly believes that the members of the profession are the ones best placed to make decisions as to how education should be delivered in this time of crisis. To date we have been largely left out of the decision making process. The IEUA NSW/ACT Branch is calling for regular consultation meetings with the Minister, and for the modelling used for making decisions about education be made available.
"The IEUA NSW/ACT Branch is calling for a careful and agreed plan to reopen schools that ensures a safe return for teachers and support staff. The union believes that a staged reopening, commencing around mid-Term 2, would provide teachers and support staff with the health and safety assurances to which they are entitled, and students with the continuing educational outcomes they deserve.
"The research shows us that effective distance education can happen, and we know that valuable learning is taking place in the current remote environment. To suggest otherwise is both disingenuous and disrespectful to the profession."