As a parent of three school-aged children running an advocacy organisation representing parents and carers, it’s not uncommon for the personal and professional to overlap. And so it was on my first day back at work for 2022 last week.
In the days before my leave came to an end I’d started to receive a few messages on social media and via email on one subject more than any other. It was the same subject our older kids had raised often as the tally of friends and family diagnosed with Covid rapidly grew over the break.
What to do about school returning?
My very honest answer was that I didn’t know. The covid picture had changed so dramatically, so quickly, that I quite honestly didn’t know what should happen or what would happen. On returning to work I set about doing some research and background reading and made a few phonecalls.
For every piece I read that flagged health concerns for children amidst the Omicron outbreak, there was another flagging the serious adverse impacts that any further disruption would have on children. For every piece on the efficacy of the vaccines for children, there was another raising the need for better ventilation and air filters in schools.
I read that teachers, principals and schools right around the country are asking for certainty around access to masks, vaccine boosters and rapid antigen tests. They have flagged they are willing to work with state and federal leaders to devise plans to keep school staff safe and plan for continuity in the case of exposure.
I spoke to thoughtful doctors who disagreed vehemently; some said school cannot possibly return until the peak of Omicron passes, more children are vaccinated, teachers are boosted and additional measures are implemented to minimise the risk to teachers and children. Others said that the vaccines are incredibly effective and safe and that as long as teachers have access to boosters, N95 masks and RATs, the return to school is prudent.
Clear as mud was my impression. That just a few weeks from the school year commencing there could be so much uncertainty, so little clarity and so few plans for this entirely predictable dilemma that affects a great chunk of Australians struck me as deeply unnerving and insulting.
I wanted to test the temperature among parents and prepared a short survey. Within two days more than 3000 parents nationally had responded and their message was clear. Two thirds (66%) said they do NOT think it’s safe for children to return as planned and a further 14% said they’re not sure. Only one fifth of parents said ‘Yes’ they think it’s safe for children to return.
Now while some of these parents who responded may well hold qualifications in medicine, pathology, epidemiology and public health, it’s safe to assume many don’t. That two thirds of parents think it’s not safe for children to return doesn’t mean, necessarily, that it is unsafe for children to return. But it means that the vast majority of parents feel it is unsafe and that’s an issue every leader and expert needs to consider.
More than half of respondents said school should be delayed to allow precautions to be taken around the provision of masks, Rapid Antigen Tests and ventilation (56%), to allow the peak of Omicron to pass (52%) and to ensure more children can be vaccinated (51%). This is where parents are at; it is beholden on leaders to recognise this and meet them there.
Having spent almost two years heeding the strict message that keeping kids home was the best way to keep them and others safe from this virus, it is not surprising that against a backdrop of surging cases parents aren’t feeling confident or certain that returning as planned makes sense.
The leap of faith, from strict rules, remote learning and limited case numbers to very few restrictions and an exponential explosion in cases and hospitalisations in just a matter of weeks is whip-lash inducing. And evidently it’s not a leap teachers or parents are trusting.
Despite many health experts publicly calling for schools to open and return as planned, parents are far more worried about the health risk that covid poses to their child/ren (62%) than the impact of additional disruption on their child/ren’s well-being (36%).
Given the fear among parents, without a plan and leadership that recognises the genuine concerns of parents, families are going to be placed in an untenable position. Either they have to send their children notwithstanding their belief it’s not safe or they will have to keep their children home without necessarily having the support or resources for remote learning.
Comments from respondents make clear that very few parents want a return to home learning or school delayed; many pointed out that they suspect it would break their own mental health. But they want children to be back in schools safely more than they want their sanity protected.
And this is concerning because families are struggling. Almost three quarters of respondents (72%) rated the stress on their family/household right now due to covid as being either seven, eight, none or ten out of ten.
The mental and physical toll the pandemic has exacted from parents, particularly parents of primary school aged children, is well-documented. It is almost unforgivable that these same Australians are now being presented with this dilemma.
This is a moment for urgent constructive leadership among and between the Federal and state politicians. Parents, teachers and students need clear guidance that will instil them with the confidence they deserve that the safety of every person in school communities is being considered as paramount. Right now, very few parents have that and with just weeks to go before school is due to commence that’s unacceptable.