School shutdown debate: Are teachers cannon fodder in battle to save economy?

Mar 25, 2020
Australian schools stay open amid the coronavirus outbreak. Source: Getty.

Are schools, and the teachers who staff them, an important national service that must do what it takes in times of need? Or are teachers being unfairly treated amid the government’s demands that schools remain open as other workplaces shut down or move to working from home amid the Covid-19 outbreak?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly defended the government’s decision to keep schools open when social distancing is being encouraged elsewhere, by focusing on the need to keep the Australian economy moving and particularly allowing key workers such as nurses and aged care employees to continue caring for coronavirus victims.

“You know what an essential worker is? A worker that’s got a job,” Morrison told Alan Jones on Jones’ 2GB radio program on Wednesday morning. “That’s what an essential worker is in this economy when you’re shutting down so many different parts of the economy. Everyone who has a job, that is an essential job because that is putting food on the table.”

Mixed messages from states

The PM has previously said that closing classrooms would take about 30 percent of health workers out of the workforce because they would be forced to care for their children at home.

The messaging, meanwhile, from the various states and territories has been confusing, with Victorian schools closing as of Tuesday and New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian announcing on Monday that while schools would remain open and were safe to attend, it was best for parents to keep children at home if possible. The PM himself has said it’s up to parents whether they send their children to school, as the education system scrambles to provide more online learning materials.

The salaries paid to teachers in the state school system are determined on a state and territory basis, and while the starting salaries of graduate teachers are recognised as competitive with other sectors at $65,000 to $70,000, the pay for experienced teachers slips below other professions, at well under $100,000 per year.

‘I feel like a glorified babysitter’

Now, some teachers have suggested that they should receive ‘danger money’ for continuing to work during the Covid-19 outbreak. And others are are angry at being treated as babysitters, while being expected to risk their personal health for the purposes of allowing others to work – and thus pay taxes, purchase goods and support the economy.

“It’s really so weird going home and watching ABC news, seeing how serious it is, watching the other measures being taken in other workplaces and yet we’re just told to keep going as if nothing is happening,” one teacher, who remained anonymous, told The Guardian. “It feels like I’m a glorified babysitter and that my own health and wellbeing is no longer important.”

On Monday, the NSW Teachers Federation said the PM has been “hypocritical and contradictory” in his reasons to keep schools open.

“Teachers and principals have now been thrust onto the frontline of this crisis,” the federation said. “There is but scant reference to the safety of teachers and principals, and other school employees, in dealing with this crisis.”

In Queensland, the Teachers Professional Association of Queensland said at the weekend that schools should be shut down, not least because they had not been equipped with basic supplies to deal with coronavirus. “TPAQ are aware of situations in some schools where there is no supply of soap or even soap dispensers in the student toilets,” the association told The Courier -Mail. “Highly concerning at any time, in the current situation this is inexplicable.”

Elsewhere, a teacher wrote for Mamamia that it was simply impossible to undertake social distancing with children.

“Experts are touting social distancing as the most effective measure of virus control, and I agree,” the teacher wrote. “But I would love to meet whoever decided this could be feasible in a class of 35 students. It is simply IMPOSSIBLE to keep 35 students four square metres away from each other. In our standard classrooms. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Schools safe, says CMO Murphy

But Professor Brendan Murphy, Australia’s chief medical officer, insists that the risk of Covid-19 being spread at schools was lower than elsewhere.

“There is no evidence that we have major transmission amongst school children. We don’t know whether that might occur. We do know that children do not, in general, get symptomatic disease,” he said on Tuesday night. “We’ve got to protect any vulnerable people in our community. We do not see children, fit, healthy children, as vulnerable people with this virus and schools can do a lot of things to make them a safe place to be with good hygiene, they are already adapting in many ways with reduced classrooms because some parents are choosing to keep their children at home.

“And we think a well-supervised, well-structured classroom is probably a safer place than many children roaming the community, which they would probably do if they weren’t at school.

The prime minister is due to meet with state and territory education ministers and union representatives on Wednesday to discuss greater protections for vulnerable teachers, such as those with pre-existing conditions and those aged over 60, and how the federal government will support schools. But he made clear in his conversation with Jones on 2GB that supporting the economy would remain his key focus.

“I do not want parents to have to decide between working and earning an income to feed their families, and educating their children,” Morrison said.

Recession looming?

His caution was underlined by the view of some economists that despite the government’s efforts, Australia could enter a deep recession as a result of Covid-19. Westpac economists Bill Evans and Andrew Hanlan said the impact of the virus would send employment up from  5.1 percent in February to 11 percent by mid-2020, amid a recession more severe than that caused by the Global Financial Crisis. Such a jobless rate hasn’t been seen in Australia since 1992

Nominal gross domestic product will slow to 2 percent in 2019-20, the Westpac economists forecast, down from 5.3 percent in 2018-19. Their forecasts were based on a shutdown of non-essential services easing in September but not returning to normal until December.

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Are teachers being unfairly treated? Should schools close? Or are they a public service that must serve the country's needs?

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