Why Australian Schools Won't Close Despite Coronavirus

As governments worldwide take drastic isolation measures in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus, Australia is increasingly becoming an outlier by keeping schools open.

Governors in more than 30 American states have shut down schools, sending more than 30 million kids home. The United Kingdom, Germany, Ireland, Italy, China, Denmark and France are among more than 70 countries to close some or all schools, as officials ask people to practice social distancing.

But in Australia, schools remain open, despite mounting pressure from parents -- and some teachers -- to follow the example of overseas allies, and claims that not closing schools flies in the face of government advice.



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Schools all over the world are closing, but not in Australia. Image: Getty

'Impossible' for schools to follow guidelines

In a letter to Scott Morrison, the Australian Education Union has called for "urgent" safety assurances and said it was "gravely concerned" about the current arrangements.

The AEU letter said the advice to keep 1.5 metres between each person was " practically impossible in the vast majority of public education settings across the nation".

It warned that schools were already running out of soap, hand sanitiser, toilet paper and tissues, as well as generally lacking enough sinks and hygiene areas for staff and students to wash hands frequently.

"Given the deep ramifications for all public education employees and the 2.5 million students in their care, we formally request that the national cabinet immediately provides detailed advice about how all public education settings are to minimise the risk to staff and students if they are to remain open," the AEU demanded.

NSW Teachers' Federation president, Angelo Gavrielatos, said on Thursday that "the design of many of our schools and the size of our classrooms makes [the 1.5-metre rule] impossible."

'Lives at risk' if schools close: PM

Morrison said Wednesday it was not in Australia's interest for schools to be shut down.

"Whatever we do, we've got to do for at least six months. So that means the disruption that would occur from the closure of schools around this country would be severe," Morrison said.

"Tens of thousands of jobs could be lost, if not more."

Scott Morrison is adamant schools need to stay open. Image: AAP

The PM said sending kids home would mean many parents having to stay home too, which he claimed would have a "30 per cent impact on the availability of health workers".

"That will put people's lives at risk," Morrison said.

Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said the decision would make things "much, much, much harder for society if our schools were closed."

Speaking to ABC on Thursday, education minister Dan Tehan claimed Australia didn't need to close schools at this stage, and that other countries were doing so "because they didn’t take the early action that we took" to combat virus spread.

"They’re getting very different medical advice to what we’re getting," he said, adding that officials were "assessing on a daily basis that advice."

"Would you move to shut down schools across the nation, when there is minimal impact of the coronavirus, at this stage, in large proportions of regional Australia?"

The NSW Teachers' Federation says keeping schools open has challenges. Image: Getty

But Gavrielatos said keeping schools open posed huge challenges in meeting government guidelines, saying maintaining social distancing on school grounds was very difficult.

Fears of hygiene shortfalls

10 daily has spoken to several teachers in NSW and Victoria  -- who would not go on the record as they were not authorised to speak publicly.

Some said they fear the virus could potentially spread during assemblies or outdoor lunch breaks when hundreds or thousands of students congregate together.

Gavrielatos said 30 per cent of NSW schools had more than 500 students -- more than the government's legally-enforceable limits on gatherings of 100 people indoors and 500 outdoors -- with the largest public school in the state having more than 2000 students.

He pointed to existing overcrowding at some schools, which was "further amplified" on rainy days when students were not allowed outside and had to stay inside indoors.

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Gavrielatos said teachers had raised serious concerns about maintaining hygiene, with a lack of cleaning materials available.

“The lack of clarity, consistency and, at times, conflicting advice and opinions expressed by the medical community and elected leaders are creating considerable stress for teachers and principals," he said.

Medical Chief Brendan Murphy said officials didn't recommend closing schools. Image: AAP

But CMO Brendan Murphy says keeping schools operating was what was best for Australian children.

"In China, only 2.4 per cent of the cases reported in Hubei province were in people under 19," he said.

"There may be occasions when there's a big outbreak in a community that some local school closures might be necessary, but at this time across the community, our view is that schools should stay open."

Murphy said large assemblies and gatherings should be avoided at schools, and that teachers should remind children to regularly wash their hands.

"We need to make sure that no sick child goes to school. We need to make sure that no sick teacher goes to school," he said.

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