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Aussie Schools Prepare For Possible Coronavirus Shut-Down Order

As the list of countries shutting down all schools increases, there's growing pressure for Australia to do the same. How prepared are our schools for this to happen?

Dozens of countries including Ireland, Italy, Greece, China, Spain, Denmark, Lebanon, Iran, Israel, Japan, and South Korea have enforced temporary or indefinite closures of all schools mandated by governments in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Shadow cabinet minister Bill Shorten has called for Australia to follow suit, “not in weeks and months, but in days”.

In an interview with Sky News, he said "more drastic social distancing measures” are needed.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has urged the government to close schools, either now, or very soon.

Primary school classroom.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has already foreshadowed schools needing to "to take extreme measures".

“Part of that plan is the inevitability that we will get to the point that rather than one school being closed, all of our schools will be closed,” he said.

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What Is The Plan For Australian Schools?

Australia is one of around 20 countries to implement partial school closures.

"So far in Australia, all school closures have been reactive," Associate Professor Rachel Wilson from the University of Sydney noted.

On Friday, Scott Morrison advised against non-essential public gatherings of 500 people or more. However, he stressed that this did not apply to school, university or daycare.

"Going to school is essential. Going to work is essential. Going and getting about your normal business - taking your kids to preschool - these things will continue," Morrison told reporters.

And while the federal government has released its emergency response plan to COVID-19, it says state and territory governments "are responsible for the operational aspects of public health responses."

"Without a concrete national plan, individual schools rely on state and territory advice, which varies significantly... this may mean there will be an untimely and inconsistent response to containing COVID-19 in schools across Australia," Wilson said.

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How Will States And Territories Respond?

The NSW Department of Education is developing innovative strategies to deal with the spread of COVID-19, should it further impact some schools.

NSW Minister for Education Sarah Mitchell told 10 daily she has requested the department investigate the use of technology so classes can continue at home.

“Teachers have already begun planning and many lessons are ready to be delivered digitally to students," she said.

Victorian schools won't close unless advised to do so by the state's top medic.

"School closures will be made on the recommendation of Victoria’s Chief Health Officer. Once this occurs, DHHS will inform the Department, and we will then work with the school to implement the closure," the state's Department said.

This advice will also apply to TAFEs and early learning centres.

"This will include support to communicate advice and instructions to students, staff and the communities."

In WA, the education department said it is being guided by its pandemic plan, "which is currently operating at the response level."

How Will Kids Be Educated?

The NSW Department of Education told 10 daily it can hold live school assemblies and broadcasts, and principals can connect will all staff and students with internet access.

Young girl using smart tablet for homeschool homework

“Using apps, teachers can upload the lessons and students can send back their work or work live in the platform. I’ve also been told we are in the final stages of upgrading our school servers so that teachers can access teaching materials from anywhere,” Mitchell said.

The Queensland government says their classrooms are ready to go digital should schools need to close.

“Continuity of learning is an extremely important consideration in our response planning," a spokesperson said.

"The department has online learning materials and virtual classroom capability that can be utilised by schools where appropriate to support sustained curriculum delivery.”

What About Homes Without Tech Or Internet Access?

Where households don't have access to laptops or tablets, the department said it will offer support to families and loan equipment where possible.

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The West Australian education department did not answer questions about technology accessibility instead telling 10 daily, "Further details will be provided when and if necessary."

But public health and education experts are concerned the education sector's response is too reactive.

"A review of several studies suggests widespread, proactive school closures have been effective at reducing the rate of new influenza cases, but research on the length of time they should be shut is inconclusive," Wilson said.

"We need a national approach to virus containment and educational provision, with schools at the centre of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic."

South Australia and Queensland's education departments were also contacted for comment.

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au