“Why are we so expendable?”
Victorian high school teacher Karla Owen garnered an avalanche of support on social media as several educators highlighted just how “conflicting” the government’s information regarding schools returning from the term break has been, as the rest of the country remains in lockdown.
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How schools would operate while nationwide coronavirus restrictions are in place has been a contentious topic since lockdown measures were first implemented, with the Federal Government allowing each state or territory to make the final call on their own plans.
While the focus remains on getting kids back in the classroom, particularly year 12 students facing their final months of education, the sheer contradiction regarding schools returning versus public lockdowns continuing was laid bare on tonight’s Q&A episode, which saw support for teachers flood social media.
Schools are not closed and teachers have not stopped working. in fact they are working harder than ever before. #QandA
— Michelle Philpott (@mphilpott247) April 27, 2020
You may be an expert in health but I’m not sure if any of them have ever taught in a classroom #qanda
— Scott Duncan (@sduncan0101) April 27, 2020
But one teacher’s plea for greater consideration stood out.
Pointing out Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s original plan that parliament would postpone sitting until August, while teachers, students and school staff members have for the most part been required to remain at school, Karla Owen asked: “What makes parliamentarians more important than me?”
“I’m a high school teacher and have been following all the conflicting information about schools in the media,” she began.
“Parliament originally stated they would sit in August but it’s been brought forward to mid-May.
“Part of the reason for this was due to issues surrounding social distancing, but ScoMo has said all along (schools) are a safe place to be. What makes parliamentarians more important than me? They can social distance more easily than I can and they probably will, but in schools this is certainly not the case,” she said.
“Where Mr Morrison came out last week and essentially berated teachers, this was a slap in the face to all teachers. Why is Mr Morrison putting teachers – one of the country’s most important resources – in harm’s way? Why are we so expendable?”
Very proud to work with Karla #qanda https://t.co/5piAqs8R4g
— Michael Schultz (@M_Schultz80) April 27, 2020
Responding to the pointed question, education minister Dan Tehan said: “Can I say to you, Karla, the Federal Government and all state and territory governments have been very conscious about the health and welfare of teachers and principals and teachers aides right across this nation.”
He continued: “Both my sisters are teachers. So this is something that we have paid attention to and given great consideration to. But what we’ve done consistently right throughout this pandemic is taken the advice of the medical expert panel. Now that medical expert panel is made up of the chief medical officers from all state and territories and the Commonwealth chief medical officer.”
He reiterated that advice has been “consistent”.
“It’s been safe for students to go to school and with the right protocols in place, it’s safe for teachers to go to school and teach students. And that’s why it’s been the consistent approach that the federal government has taken right throughout this pandemic and it will continue to be,” he repeated.
Host Hamish Macdonald retaliated that the inconsistencies arose from state and federal leaders holding differing views on the matter.
“Karla Owen is in Melbourne, Victoria, your home state, where there is different guidance from the state government and it’s created an enormous amount of dismay from what we can tell from all the teachers who have written to us because the prime minister is saying one thing, you’re saying the same thing and their state government is saying another thing altogether,” he pointed out.
Victorian schools have been open since April 14, and the Victorian government has been firm in its stance that students must learn from home if at all possible.
Victoria is following the advice of its own chief health officer Brett Sutton over that of Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy.
The vast majority of students in Vic are learning from home because that is the advice from our health experts.
If we did not follow this advice, more than 1 million children, their parents and school staff congregating at schools could spread Coronavirus in our community.
— James Merlino (@JamesMerlinoMP) April 25, 2020
Responding to Macdonald’s statement, Mr Tehan repeated that the government has taken “a very consistent approach”.
He later added: “We think every state should aim to set a goal and the goal should be to have all students back in the classroom with teachers teaching in the by the end of May. And we think that would be a terrific national goal for us to be able to achieve.”
Many watching along at home were not satisfied with his answer:
— Devon Sillett (@ladyliterology) April 27, 2020
— Paul Johnson (@pjohnson_sports) April 27, 2020
#QandA Dan Tehan is struggling to keep up with the questions. Clearly he has no answers…on anything!
— Sokra Tease (@sokra_tease) April 27, 2020
Dan Tehan is not answering the question. Same old LNP waffle #qanda
— Maralyn Parker (@MaralynParker) April 27, 2020
Elsewhere on the program, students voiced concerns that privately educated children would have an advantage in exams that determine university entrances later in the year if they have more face-to-face learning time than publicly educated students.
“School is going back this week in New South Wales and I’m a Year 12 student. I go to a public school which means I’ll only return to school for face-to-face learning for one day a week from week three,” NSW student Gabe Joseph pointed out.
“Yet there are many private schools across the state that will resume full-time, face-to-face learning from week one, making the situation grossly unfair and inequitable.
“What is the government doing to even the playing field between public schools and independent schools considering the HSC exams and trial exams have not been postponed to allow for these discrepancies?”
NSW teachers federation president Angelo Gavrielatos responded that the contradictions described by the student were “a direct consequence of the announcement of the New South Wales government with respect to its return to school program.”
Deputy vice chancellor of the University of Sydney, Lisa Jackson Pulver, then responded that public schools returning for less face-to-face learning time than privately educated students would certainly “have an effect” on their university entrance.
She added that universities would recognise the discrepancy when accepting students later this year.
“We go through each student application case-by-case … We have spent days and days and days going through such things are mechanisms for us to do it and we’re adaptable, flexible and able to do it,” she assured the panel.