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Time To Go Back To School

Just when the Commonwealth Government was attempting to exert maximum pressure on the Victorian Government to reopen schools, the Victorian Health Minister, Jenny Mikakos, announced that a teacher at Meadowglen Primary School had tested positive to COVID-19 and the school would be closed. The music teacher had had minimal contact with students and limited contact with other staff but he had come to the school while infectious so the premises had to be cleaned.

The announcement came shortly after the Federal Education Minister, Dan Tehan, had laid into the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, on the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday morning, telling David Speers that the Premier had taken a sledgehammer to Victorian schools and had displayed a failure of leadership. Later in the morning, in a written statement, he withdrew the comments and admitted he had overstepped the mark.

However, in the course of the Speers interview, Minister Tehan made some valid points. He said that the premiers, including Mr. Andrews, had agreed on a set of principles covering school closures. These included agreement that the best form of schooling was attendance at school. Another principle was that the governments should be guided by the Australian Health Protection Principals Committee (the Commonwealth and state chief medical officers). The AHPPC, including the Victorian Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, have agreed unanimously that it is safe for students to return to school.

The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, said that Dr. Sutton’s concern was with mobility issues rather than the fact that children were likely to be infectious. The Victorian Government’s objective was to stop people from moving around.

At this stage schools in South Australia, the Northern Territory are open and NSW and Queensland are moving towards full re-opening. Victoria and the ACT are insisting that schools will remain closed for the second term. In the latter case, this is inexplicable because the ACT has no active cases of COVID-19.

On Sunday morning, the Commonwealth Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Nick Coatsworth, told Sky News that he had reviewed all the available evidence from around the world and Australia and there was nothing that supported the contention that children should not return to school.

The Commonwealth is desperate to get kids back into schools so that it can get people back to work. At the moment support for unemployed and underemployed workers is costing the budget more than $1 billion a day. This is unsustainable in the longer term and the sooner Australia gets back to work the sooner the debt hemorrhage will stop. At the moment the Government is borrowing money to pay people to not work.

Next Friday, the National Cabinet is likely to lift restrictions on some sectors, including retail, returning to work. However, the fact that some parents will have to stay at home because their children cannot attend school will impose limitations on this.

The Commonwealth Government is also concerned that the longer the current income support measures remain in place the harder it will be to withdraw them. Its agenda is to move to high growth, high productivity economy as quickly as possible. On the other hand state governments bear none of the burdens of income support and can bide their time on pushing for a resumption of work.

Ultimately the question of whether schools will reopen depends on the parents. There are a number of studies that show that children suffer a significant disadvantage if they are unable to attend school. This is particularly true for disadvantaged students, so it is likely that parents will push for schools to open sooner rather than later.

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