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Australian Children to Gradually Return to School As COVID-19 Controls Ease

A woman and her children, wearing face masks, arrive in Sydney Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, from a flight from Wuhan, China.
A woman and her children, wearing face masks, arrive in Sydney Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, from a flight from Wuhan, China.

Parents frustrated at mixed COVID-19 school messages.

In Australia, schools have been one of the most controversial parts of COVID-19 lockdowns. The vast majority of students have stayed home. Only a small number of children whose parents cannot care for them during the day have been allowed to attend. However, as Australia begins to wind back some of its coronavirus restrictions, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is again insisting all students should return to class. This has put him at odds with state governments, which have control over schools.

Home-schooling has become a monumental challenge for parents across Australia.

There is confusion about mixed messages from politicians. The federal government has said Australian children should go to school, while many state authorities have urged that they stay home.

Many parents, like Seonaid Thomas in Sydney, are frustrated at the lack of clarity.

“I do think there have been quite confusing, mixed messages from the government regarding school closures and the situation surrounding children,” Thomas said. “So it really depends on the individual’s own outlook and assessment of the situation rather than there being a clear or concise guideline.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has argued it is safe for children to return to class, although he concedes that teachers might be worried.

“It is so important that children are able to keep physically going to school,” Morrison said. “The expert medical advice throughout the coronavirus to date has not changed when it comes to the safety of children going to school. They have consistently advised the risk remains very low. The issue in our schools relates to the safety, principally, of teachers.”

In the state of Victoria, though, Education Minister James Merlino wants children to stay home, and at the start of the new term, the vast majority have.

“The message from Victoria has been clear and consistent,” he said. “If you can learn from home, you must learn from home, and that message has been understood and heeded.”

In New South Wales, there is a different approach. Children will initially head back to school for just one day a week starting this week after schools were closed to most students.

State Premier Gladys Berejiklian said safety measures will be in place.

“Schools will also have the capacity for temperatures checks where they think it is appropriate,” she said. “There will also be extra cleaning of playground equipment and other things during the day, and this is really to ensure not only are our school communities safe, but everybody feels safe within them whether you are a parent, a student and, of course, our teachers.”

Queensland also has a phased approach to bringing all students back to school. If the state continues to record very low cases of COVID-19, all pupils will be back starting May 25.

In Tasmania, officials say the return to schools would be “cautious, measured and sensible.” Under current plans, some students would not go back to class until early next month.

Australia has had almost 7,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. More than 6,000 patients have recovered, but almost 100 people have died from the virus.