In a dramatic escalation of the fight to get teachers back into the classroom, Prime Minister Scott Morrison will announce a plan to put some “sugar on the table” and allow private schools to bring forward up to 25 per cent of their annual funding.
And the deal could hold the key to his own daughters Abbey and Lily returning to their Sydney private school after the Prime Minister complained he could not send them back until normal classroom teaching resumed.
The Prime Minister has insisted he would send his kids back to school “in a heartbeat’’ this term as long as the school was offering proper classroom teaching.
“I mean, they were sitting in a room looking at a screen, that’s not teaching, that’s childminding,’’ he said.
“And schools aren’t for childminding. Schools are for teaching and they’re for learning.”
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Sources have told news.com.au that the NSW Government could be plotting a course towards a similar June 1 deadline for a majority of kids back at school, with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirming: “We will see a return of face-to-face teaching from 11 May, and then will consider accelerating a full return to school as soon as possible.”
Education Minister Dan Tehan wrote to private schools on Tuesday night, noting recent claims that some private schools could be forced to close as cash-strapped parents fall behind in fees or switch to the public system. He is proposing to allow private schools to bring forward funding they would otherwise secure in July.
Schools can use the cash to purchase COVID-19 supplies including hand sanitiser and ‘deep clean’ classrooms.
In the letter obtained by news.com.au, Mr Tehan insists that the medical advice is clear: it is safe for students to return to classes.
“There is very limited evidence of transmission between children in the school environment and … on current evidence, schools can remain fully open,’’ he writes.
“The purpose of this payment option is to financially assist … schools in their response to COVID-19, while also encouraging them to re-engage with their students in a classroom-based learning environment.”
To be eligible for the first payment of 12.5 per cent, private schools must comply with the condition of approval imposed on 9 April 2020 to be open for physical campus learning in term 2 and to have a plan to fully re-open classroom teaching by 1 June 2020.
For the second payment of 12.5 per cent, schools need to commit to achieving 50 per cent of their students attending classroom based learning by 1 June 2020.
NSW Catholic Schools CEO Dallas McInerny said for those schools that had offered parents fee relief the offer could prove attractive.
“There are educational and economic reasons why we want kids back in school. I think from week 3 you will start to see more of our schools heading back to full tilt,’’ he said.
“The main constraint is the availability of staff. Some Catholic schools have responded very generously with fee relief for families affected by COVID-19 and for those schools, this could prove attractive.”
Independent Schools Association CEO David Mulford said increasingly parents wanted children to return to classes.
“I think there’s a growing sense parents want children back at school now,’’ he said.
“Noone has ever said it’s going to be the best solution, online learning. Some people thrive and others don’t. Some subjects thrive on it and others don’t.”
But the proposal is set to spark a furious backlash from teachers’ unions, who warn the rush back to classes is “risky” and could spark a second wave of COVID-19 cases.
According to the Independent Education Union representing teachers at private schools in Queensland and the Northern Territory, the current case to reopen schools to all students is a high-risk strategy.
Dr Adele Schmidt said current calls for schools to reopen ignored established research regarding the potential for students to infect scores of contacts with a disease in a given day.
“So much is still unknown about this disease and a shift back to ‘business as usual’ in our schools is a fraught and dangerous one – relying on claims that have not been well tested nor peer-reviewed about the infectivity of COVID-19 in students and students themselves as infection agents,” Dr Schmidt said.
“While early data on transmission of COVID-19 in New South Wales schools would appear to confirm that transmission among children is less common than for influenza – we don’t yet have robust data on virulence of the coronavirus in question.”
Public school students return to normal classes in Western Australia today, while students have already returned in the Northern Territory where around 60 per cent of students are attending classes. In South Australia, 58 per cent of students are attending schools.
But in Victoria and the ACT less than two per cent of students are attending after government officials ordered parents to keep children at home.
In Canberra, teachers’ unions are refusing to return to any classes under a formal agreement that all teachers have a right to work from home.
As a result, the nation’s capital has closed local schools for essential workers and is refusing to offer before or after school care at nine hub schools across the region that are not staffed by teachers as a result of the ‘work from home’ agreement.
Samantha Maiden is news.com.au’s national political editor | @samanthamaiden