Are we ready for COVID-19 related school closures?
Today, Sydney’s Epping Boys High School closed its doors after a 16-year-old pupil tested positive to the Coronavirus. The school, which has 1200 students, is so far only closing for one day, to allow health officials to contact anyone the boy has had contact with, and conduct their tracing process for COVID-19.
SeeThrough conducted a twitter poll this week about the Coronavirus and school closures.
We had over 2000 responses, and the results were overwhelmingly in favour of schools closing their doors to deal with the spread of this virus. We even had a few incredulous comments – “Why is this even a question?”
While the idea of shutting a school down to attempt to deal with the spread of this contagion (and allay our anxieties) may sound like the easy, logical thing to do, the realities for many working families are very different.
Ironically, as I write this, I am working from home as my two-year-old son has croup and an ear infection. His father stayed home with him the past two days, but it’s my turn today and, as I am sure many of you can attest to, it’s not an easy prospect to keep a child occupied while trying get anything done. I am one of the privileged ones, though, as my work allows me to work remotely. My boss is interstate and we communicate via phone, message apps and email. I just need a laptop and an internet connection, and my son still has a nap during the day. But what about those families that aren’t so lucky?
What about the single mum with the 7-year-old who can’t stay at home on his own? His mum is a waitress, so there is no working remotely in her case. Their NBN is spotty at best, so the online modules are difficult to complete, and mum is struggling with the technology. Her son’s school is notoriously slow in adopting new software, and there are more than a few problems with this hastily pasted together online curriculum.
She’s casual, so has no unpaid leave – but the other choice is letting her child stay at home by himself. If she turns down shifts, she will lose them going forward. Not everyone has a village, and not everyone’s employers are understanding. Finding a full-time baby-sitter at the last minute is not an easy task. It means finding someone (quickly) who is available for 5 days a week for at least two weeks. Her budget doesn’t cover unexpected full-time care, and the chances of finding a nanny to fill this rare and immediate need, especially when she is competing with other parents in the same situation, makes it exceedingly difficult.
Her son is missing his friends. His is experiencing cabin fever, and is becoming increasingly anxious about the constant news coverage he can’t avoid about the crisis. She is worried about work and paying the bills, her son’s education and his mental health.
This scenario is not far-fetched, and there are many such tales in the media from school closures in China, Hong Kong, Italy and Japan. Even if you would not personally be impacted by a school closure in this exact way, I am sure you can think of someone you know who would be particularly disadvantaged. This mother is not the only one who we’re thinking about when we think about the deeper implications of shutting down schools, though.
What about the parents struggling to pay private school fees? I’m fairly sure the schools aren’t going to waive their fees for the school closure. Should they have to pay for fees, and care while trying to hold down their jobs, or using up their sick leave? What about the companies that stock the school’s canteen, or the farmers who sell to these companies, and so on? The financial implications for the community as a whole are a real consideration, too.
So, what can we do as a society to make school closures do not cause more problems than the ones they are trying to prevent? Can the ABC broadcast lessons as the national broadcaster is doing in China? We don’t have a nationalised curriculum so the logistics of this would be hard.
In many ways, we can be grateful that this is happening now. Imagine the difficulties before technology, smart phones and remote learning. Year 12 students who can hardly afford to miss time off school during this most important schooling year of their lives can speak to classmates and teachers via chat programs. Social media means they don’t feel as isolated as they might, and Facebook groups may be useful for helping parents find last-minute care.
Not everyone agrees with school closures, and many have noted that in the past, the results of school closures in preventing the spread of viruses have been mixed. Is it even an option for schools to stay open if Coronavirus reaches their doors, though? Children are naturally curious, and touch things and germs spread. They are the site of mass-gatherings, and so the chances of infected people passing the virus to many in the community is much higher. The more people who are sick at one time, the more our hospitals and medical services are placed under strain.
Perhaps, as in other countries, PM Scott Morrison and the federal government could provide every parent in Australia with paid leave during school closures, or a one-off cushioning payment to off-set virus containment measures. We need to rally as a community to ensure that hard-working Australians are not unduly punished for the spread of Coronavirus, while balancing these considerations against essential health measures that are enacted to protect our citizens.
How would the practicalities of a school closure impact you and your family? Do you have suggestions in how to help parents manage the logistics of school closures in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak? Let us know.