SUBJECTS: Coronavirus and schools, Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package
Patricia Karvelas: Well, National Cabinet has agreed to a set of principles to manage schools during the coronavirus pandemic. State and territories are responsible for making decisions about how classrooms run in the months ahead. They’ve agreed that education may need to be offered through flexible options, such as online learning. Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the medical advice remains, that attending school represents a low health risk to students. The Education Minister Dan Tehan joins us now. Dan Tehan, welcome.
Dan Tehan: Pleasure to be with you, Patricia.
Karvelas: The Prime Minister said today, ultimately, schools are a state responsibility. Why then has the Federal Government been urging students to go back to school?
Tehan: Well, what we’ve been doing is trying to ensure that we’ve got a nationally consistent approach, as best we can, when it comes to education. And, what we’ve been urging is that all schools across the nation remain open. And, for those schools, where states and territories have said they would prefer students, if possible, to stay at home, that they remain open for those parents who have to work, or for those vulnerable children. And, of course, in places like the NT, where students will be encouraged to go back to school and classrooms will be open for teachers to teach from the classroom, obviously, there’s a different situation there. But, we’ve wanted to ensure that right across the nation, all schools are open for those parents who have to work and for those vulnerable children.
Karvelas: A lot of parents and children and teachers are struggling with these new arrangements. Are states and territories working on ways to improve them?
Tehan: Look, of course, we want to ensure that the best education is being delivered during this pandemic. And, everything that state and territory education ministers have been doing is to ensure that they can deliver the best education, given the circumstances. Now, that will vary, and, everyone understands that. But, there is a real commitment there to ensure every child is being engaged with by their school, and, to the best of their ability, they’re providing that continuity of learning that’s so important.
Karvelas: So, you talk about, sort of, a national framework, but, ultimately, you’ve come out of the National Cabinet with a bunch of principles, motherhood statements, broad principles. But, the states just will go it alone, right?
Tehan: Well, there’s seven principles there and they’re important principles, and, I think, we shouldn’t dismiss them. And, the first one is, I think, an incredibly important statement, and, that is, the best way we can educate our children is in the classroom, and that education being delivered by professional teachers. So …
Karvelas: … But, everyone accepts that, don’t they, Minister? Everyone knows that. I’d love to have my children in school, but we have this thing called COVID-19, so we can’t. So, the reality is, that’s what we’ve been told in Victoria. But, there are mixed messages about all of this. Do we really have more clarity today?
Tehan: Well, I think we do. I think we’ve got very clear now guiding principles that everyone signed up to. There also will be released later today the latest advice from the medical expert panel, on what sort of precautions or what sort of hygiene, what sort of distancing measures, should be put in place to ensure that teachers are safe at school. And, so, we’ve said all along that we would continue to update and provide that advice, so, there’ll be more updated advice on that. And, there’s, once again, a very clear statement from the medical expert panel that it’s safe for children to go to school. So, I think it’s incredibly important that the National Cabinet continues to review this, continues to take the advice from the medical expert panel, and provide that direction right across the nation. And, then, obviously, each state and territory, as is their jurisdictional responsibility, will make decisions according to where the pandemic is at in their jurisdiction.
Karvelas: The Prime Minister says teachers are more at risk in the staffroom than the classroom. So, how do you get around that? If you do reopen schools, how do you keep teachers safe?
Tehan: Well, the medical expert panel will provide further advice on that later today, but …
Karvelas: … So, can you give me some ideas around how that, what that might look like?
Tehan: Well, the sort of thing would be, to make sure, for instance, in the lunchroom for teachers, making sure there’s proper social distancing is practised. Making sure that interaction between teachers and parents is limited, so, for instance, at school drop-off or in other interaction. Making sure that social distancing, as best you can, is practised in the classroom. And, making sure that students understand the importance of hygiene, so, when it comes to washing their hands, those types of things, when it comes to coughing and sneezing, doing so into their elbow. All those sorts of things can be put in place, as well as the direction and advice that’s already been provided with regards to those teachers who might be over 65, ensuring they aren’t teaching in the classroom – or other teachers who might have co-morbidities – to make sure they won’t be participating directly with that teaching in the classroom.
Karvelas: Do you accept that Victoria won’t reopen schools for the majority of students in term two, at all?
Tehan: Well, ultimately, as the Prime Minister has made clear, that’ll be a decision for the Premier and the Education Minister in Victoria. So, they’ll continue to look at the situation there, and, if they think it’s possible to ease restrictions, I’m sure that schooling would be one of the things they would look at. But, that’s, ultimately …
Karvelas: … But, based on what the Victorian Chief Health Officer has said, he says they’ll be closed for the whole of term two. Is that what you’ve been told?
Tehan: Well, obviously, they’ll look at what the national medical expert panel says, and that, of course, includes the Victorian Chief Health Officer. But, they’ll, ultimately, make the
decisions themselves about this. So, they’ll look at where the pandemic is at, and, ultimately, they’ll assess that, look at what’s happening in other states and territories, look at the evidence. I’m sure that they’ll continue to seek guidance and updates from that …
Karvelas: … Sure. So, does that mean you think it is, sorry to be interrupting, I don’t mean to be rude …
Tehan: … No, you’re right …
Karvelas: … but, does that mean you think there is a possibility that, even in Victoria – that appears to be the most hard line on this – even in Victoria, there may be a possibility that students may go back to school in term two?
Tehan: Well, ultimately, that’ll be up to the Victorian Government. But, I would say, if we continue to flatten the curve like we are, and if everyone continues to play their role in Victoria, and right across the nation, then there might be the possibility that they can consider this. I mean, I think all of us have been incredibly impressed with the way the Australian people have so far responded to this pandemic, the way that social distancing has worked, and all the other measures that have been put in place. Now, we, there’s no room for complacency. But, if we keep doing the right thing, then, I think, all states and territories will be looking, in four to six weeks, about, okay, are there steps they can make that would allow us to get back to more normality, and a more normal way of life? And, I’m sure that schooling would be one of the things that would be considered.
Karvelas: In four to six weeks. Okay. In terms of what might change at schools, if they reopen in four to six weeks in some other states – and, we’ll see what Victoria does – does that mean it might include things like parents not being allowed onto school grounds?
Tehan: Well, that’s a possibility. Obviously, the medical experts will provide that advice. But, it’s very clear that the greatest risk to teachers comes from contact with other adults. So, every step that can be put in place which limits the ability of parents to interact with teachers, and make sure there’s proper social distancing between teachers, obviously, would make a lot of sense.
Karvelas: Just on some other issues. The Government threatened to withdraw funding to non-government schools if they didn’t reopen. Have they all reopened?
Tehan: Look, to the best of our knowledge, in Victoria, all of them have. But, we will, obviously, be seeking guidance from the relevant body in Victoria to ensure that’s the case. Because, it now is a condition of funding that Independent schools do remain open. So, now that term two is back in Victoria, we will be monitoring this, and talking to the relevant Independent schools body in Victoria, to ensure that that is being adhered to by all schools.
Karvelas: And, just on a personal level. Are you now sending one of your daughters back to school?
Tehan: Well, as I said yesterday, I was going to have a discussion with my daughter and she’s, obviously, been following this debate closely, and has understood the role that I’ve been playing in saying that schools do remain safe. Now, there is online supervised learning taking place at her school, and she said to me, ‘Dad, I’m happy to go along, because I’ve been watching and following what’s going on, and I understand that it might place you in a
difficult situation if I don’t.’ So, I must say, I’m incredibly proud of her. She’s a 16-year-old girl, and we’ve had very good chats right through this.
Karvelas: Okay. She’s decided to go back to school. But, you heard what the Prime Minister said in the press conference. He said his children aren’t, because it’s just being in a hall and being on the Internet. Do you accept that model is the way it looks for many students, and does it look like that for your daughter?
Tehan: Well, I mean, that’s why I was very interested when she agreed to go back, because that’s what she will be, that’s what she did undertake today, is supervised learning. And, I asked her, ‘What was the difference between doing it at home and at school?’ And, there’s not a lot of difference. And, what she said to me was, ‘Dad, it’ll be great when we’re back and we’ve got proper classes, we’ve got a teacher at the front of the classroom.’ And, that’s what she’s really looking forward to, and that’s what she wants to see. So, look, I’ll continue to have discussions with her. As you could imagine, with a 16-year-old teenage girl, these are discussions that you have to make sure that she understands the situation. And, she is going to make decisions according to what she thinks is best for her education, as well. But, she went along today, and she’ll go back tomorrow. And, she’ll then have, we’ll have a discussion about what’s best for her. But, I must say, I was very proud of her in the way she understood the predicament that I was in, and was prepared to say, ‘No, Dad. I’m happy to back you and support you.’
Karvelas: Wow. That’s an incredible story in many ways. Look, I just want to, before I let you go, just touch on child care, which is one of …
Tehan: … Yeah …
Karvelas: … my slight policy obsessions. Do you have any advice on how many children have been sent back since you made child care free?
Tehan: No. Look, obviously, it’s still very new. We’re two weeks in to the new system. But, we are getting feedback that parents have re-engaged and are seeking to reenrol. So, all the early indications are very positive. But, we’re into the second week now, so we’re continuing to monitor that. But, it does seem like parents are keen to re-engage. We have stories of where, for health workers, for instance, who are looking to increase their hours or days at work, who have approached their centres to see whether they could get more time for their child in those centres. But, it’s still very early days, Patricia. But, we are continuing to monitor that.
Karvelas: Dan Tehan, thank you so much for joining us.
Tehan: Thanks Patricia.
Karvelas: That’s the Education Minister Dan Tehan. And, I did think that was an incredible story about his daughter. Clearly, they’ve got a pretty good relationship if she was prepared to do that.