Sunday, 26 April 2020
SUBJECTS: Coronavirus and schools, Year 12 students, Teachers’ unions
Sharri Markson: Joining me now is the Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan. Welcome to the program, Minister. Can I just start by getting a comment from you on this story – Wenona has asked its students wear a mask when they go back to school next week, and to socially distance. They’re also going to have their temperature checked. Is this necessary?
Dan Tehan: Well, we’ve been following the advice of the medical expert panel, and they’ve said there is no rationale for this. They’ve been very clear both when it comes to schools that we don’t need either teachers or students wearing masks, and I think what we would like to see is all schools across the country following the medical expert advice here in Australia, that has stood us in very good stead. As a matter of fact, when it comes to flattening the curve and what we’ve been able to do in this country, most people now think that we are one of the leaders when it comes to, internationally, to defeating the coronavirus. So, my view is, let’s continue to follow the medical expert advice, and that medical expert advice says, when it comes to schools, there’s no need for the wearing of masks.
Markson: Well, if your school asked your children to wear a mask, what would be your reaction as a parent?
Tehan: Well, I would think that I would be concerned, because I think children would be asking, ‘Why is it necessary to be wearing masks?’ They would then ask, ‘On what advice is the wearing of masks being told to us?’ And, if the medical expert advice was that there’s no need for it, my worry would be that it would cause concern among children, rather than doing what we want – making a very good learning environment for children to be able to get that continuity of education that they need during this coronavirus pandemic.
Markson: Now, Minister, I understand you’ve had meetings this week with 24 principals of Independent schools. Effectively, you’re bypassing the state premiers – who have a different view from you – about when schools should reopen. What can you tell us about when private, Independent schools are going to return to class, based on your meetings with them this week?
Tehan: Well, what we’ve been trying to do, from a Federal Government point of view, is provide a consistency right across the nation, about what schools should be doing to remain open. And, our hope is, now, to get teachers teaching in the classroom. Our position has been consistent since day one of this pandemic, and, that is, we should follow the advice of the medical expert panel. And, we’re going to continue to adopt that position. So, the discussions that we’ve been having with Independent schools, with Catholic schools, and also with state and territory education ministers, is that we should all follow the medical expert advice. And, that is, that it’s safe to be open. And, our hope now, is, nationally, that we will see all schools back to teaching in the classroom by the end of May. We know in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and the South Australian, and South Australia, that’s where they are now. And, what we want to see is other states and territories to follow.
Markson: Well, that’s not happening in those other states and territories. And, isn’t the problem, isn’t the fear, that you’ll end up with a situation where public school students are at more of a disadvantage? Because, the private schools will all go back full time, or many of them will go back full time, based – in the next three to four weeks – after the conversations you’ve been having. And, the public school students, who, often, you know, don’t have as advanced online learning systems, in any case, will be behind in the years’ work.
Tehan: Well, one of the great concerns that we’ve had, from a Federal Government point of view, all along has been that we want to make sure that vulnerable children, children from low socio-economic areas, Indigenous children, children from rural and remote areas, are not disadvantaged by this pandemic. And, often, they don’t have the ability, or the facilities, or the technology, to be able to do the online learning that others can. So, that’s why we want all schools, right across the nation, to get on this path back to teachers teaching in the classroom. And, if we can all aim to achieve that by the end of May, I think, that would be an outstanding achievement for us, nationally. It would show that, not only have we been able to flatten the curve, but we’ve been able to provide continuity of education to all children, from all backgrounds, throughout this pandemic.
Markson: If you take New South Wales as an example – the Premier Gladys Berejiklian has said full time schooling will happen from August. And, if you’ve got private schools going back in the next three to four weeks – based on the conversations you’ve been having – how badly will this affect HSC students? Particularly, from public schools?
Tehan: Well, one of the things we want to make sure is that, that all students, and, especially all Year 12 students, are getting that continuity of education. So, our hope, from a Federal Government point of view, is that all states and territories – now that we’re successfully flattening the curve – will look at schools as one of the first things to relax the current requirements they have – around parents being advised, if they can, to stay at home with their children – that they will relax that requirement, and look to get students back into the classroom, teachers back into the classroom, because, otherwise, we will see a divide when it comes to the type of learning that is taking place for some students, versus the type of learning which is taking place for others. And, as we know, there’ll be those students from low socio-economic areas, there will be those Indigenous rural students, who are the ones who, ultimately, will miss out the most.
Markson: Would you consider having Year 11 results being used as an entry requirement for university, as some experts like those at the ANU have suggested?
Tehan: Well, universities have put in place different requirements depending on their own analysis, and what they see as the best thing to do to admit students. ANU have been using a combination of Year 11 results and Year 12 results for quite some time, so they think that their, that they can use Year 11 results, and use them as a very good indicator. They will also use Year 12 results, as well, for some students. But, all universities are looking to adopt and adapt as a result of this pandemic. The most important thing is that we want to make sure that all Year 12 students this year, have that ability to be able to progress to university, to vocational education, or into work. So, we’re all committed to make sure that all Year 12 students will get an ATAR for 2020.
Markson: Yeah. Minister, look, just when it comes to the actual health risk of teachers and students returning to school, it’s been very clear that there’s – from the medical advice – that there’s a minimal health risk to students. But, what about the risk to teachers? And, you know, many teachers are very worried about going back to school, about putting their health at risk – particularly, older and more vulnerable teachers. What do you say to them about, you know, why they should risk their health, and potentially their life?
Tehan: So, I’d say a couple of things. One is, I’d like to say thank you to all the teachers who have continued to teach our students throughout this pandemic. You have done an outstanding job. Some of you have remained in the classroom, others have had to move to teaching online. And, the flexibility that you’ve shown, and how you’ve wanted to continue that education for our children, is something which is outstanding, and the nation thanks you for. But, I’d also say, that the medical advice has been very clear – that it is safe for our children to be in the classroom. But, it’s also safe for our teachers to be at school, as long as we follow the medical expert advice. And, that is, if you’re over 65, then you shouldn’t be teaching in the classroom. If you’ve got a co-morbidity, then you shouldn’t be teaching in the classroom. You should practice proper social distancing in the lunchroom. You should avoid contact with other adults. The medical expert panel has looked at all this. They’ve put in place protocols which schools should follow, and, if you follow those protocols, then it is safe for you to be in that, at the school, teaching. And, that’s …
Markson: … Children can be asymptomatic, children can be asymptomatic carriers, though, can’t they? Wouldn’t it be very difficult for a teacher not to touch any of the paperwork that students are working on? Or, the equipment? Or, you know, any number of things, particularly when you’re dealing with younger children?
Tehan: Well, all this has been looked at by the medical experts. There’s now been studies done. There was one which was released today in New South Wales, which was done, well, commissioned, by the Department of Health and Education, which shows the risks are minimal. The World Health Organization has done studies of China, and looked at this. And, all the data and all the information says that it’s safe for, not only students, to be at school, but, with the right protocols in place, for our teachers to be at school. And, our medical experts have said they will continue to monitor this. If they saw a change, then it would, then they would advise of it. And, the Federal Government’s position has been very clear – if the medical expert opinions change, then we will change according to those medical experts. But, when you’re going to defeat a pandemic, you have to take the advice of the medical experts, and that’s what we’ve been doing consistently right along.
Markson: Well, Minister, the state premiers are choosing to take advice from the unions, rather than the medical experts, on this issue. Do you think this issue has shown to you that the unions have too much power, in some of the states?
Tehan: Well, what I would say to the unions, right across the nation, is, ‘Please stop and think of the impact of us not having teachers in the classroom, and what that impact, in particular, on those from low socio-economic backgrounds, from Indigenous backgrounds, those from rural and remote backgrounds.’ These are the ones that have been really, these are the students that have been really impacted by the fact that they can’t be at school learning. So, I think, all the unions, all the teachers’ unions across the nation, need to stop and think, and really put in place the practices and the protocols that will enable teachers to
get back to the classroom. And, make sure that those most disadvantaged students won’t lose months of their education, because it will have a large impact on students’ right across the nation.
Markson: Minister, thank you very much for your time. Really appreciate it.
Tehan: Thanks, Sharri.