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Contradiction not clarity in government’s latest schools announcement

 

24 April 2020

 

Contradiction not clarity in government’s latest schools announcement

 

The IEU is calling for clarification on the Prime Minister’s decision to lift physical distancing rules in school classrooms.

 

In an announcement made today, Friday 24 April, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declared that physical distancing rules of “1.5m in classrooms and the 4 square metre rule is not a requirement of the expert medical advice in classrooms”.

 

Despite Morrison’s insistence that he “cannot be more clear than that. The advice cannot be more clear than that”, the IEU is seeking clarification on what specific information has changed that would alter the official advice since 16 April, when an AHPPC document on reducing the potential risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools was released, encouraging social distancing measures for school staff and students.

 

“Confusion reigns,” says IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary Mark Northam. “The union and our members are left wondering what has changed so dramatically."

 

In today’s press conference, Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said there was no evidence of significant transmission among children in schools, and that most children who have become infected in Australia have contracted the virus in the family home, not in the school environment.

 

For a number of weeks now, most students and schools have been operating remotely. The small percentage of students who were physically attending before the school holidays were practising socially distanced measures in the classroom for their own safety, that of their peers, school staff, and families. It is therefore unclear what new information on student physical distancing and school transmission rates could possibly be informing the government’s new guidance.

 

“The union believes the arrangements the AHPPC set out on 16 April are appropriate and should remain in place until at least May 11,” Northam said.

 

“After much negotiation and discussion with school employers, plans were put in place for Term 2, and school staff were prepared with a common understanding. Schools thrive on certainty and predictability and these elements are missing.

 

“This rethink will cause considerable angst for our members and school communities.

“The union, along with school employers, continues to seek a briefing from the Chief Medical Officer about these developments.”

 

Evidence from New Zealand shows that transmission can happen quickly and seriously within school environments. One of New Zealand’s most significant infection clusters, 93 confirmed cases as at 24 April, is linked to a single school, Marist College in Mt Albert, Auckland. Cases include students, school staff, the principal, and the broader school community. According to media reports, at least 15 staff at Marist College had been confirmed as having coronavirus, as at 11 April. Since implementing strict social distancing measures, a week after the Marist College outbreak began, New Zealand has seen no further school outbreaks.

 

The timing of the announcement, just days before the recommencement of the school term and following the government’s announced intentions to begin transitioning students back into classrooms, is also cause for concern.