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The coming crisis in our schools: teachers struggle with COVID-19

By Peter West - posted Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Australia is in the midst of a crisis - one we have never seen before. People have been told to keep distant from others, and preferably, stay at home. Australians celebrate larrikins like Ned Kelly and Ben Hall, celebrated bushrangers who spent their lives fighting police. Australians deliberately flout authority, and parents often challenge schools and belittle teachers. And thus in true Australian fashion, last week thousands disobeyed authorities' call for social distancing. They went in large numbers on crowded buses and cars to Bondi Beach on Friday, 20th March, and jostled lots of others.

As I write, beaches along the coast of Sydney are being closed, to stop crowds of people getting close to each other.

But should we close schools? A vigorous debate is going on in many parts of the western world. Schools in the UK have been closed. Others stay open.


Thus far in late March, Australian schools stay open, in the main. Australia's Prime Minister has said they must. Apparently he has directed the Archbishop of Sydney to insist that Catholic schools stay open. The experts disagree with each other; though out of five experts in infectious diseases and similar, four out of the five advised keeping children at school.

Why Schools Should Stay Open: the Case For

The arguments for keeping schools openseem to be as follows:

Children seem to be not very much at risk from the virus, but carry all kinds of 'bugs' as they grow into strong adults.

Older people are most at risk. Men over 70, and anyone over 60, seem among those most at risk. These people must be kept safe away from infectious people.

If we close schools, when will they re-open? In 2 weeks? In a month? In six months?

If we close schools, someone will have to look after children. That will take many health workers out of the economy; we need them to fight this pandemic.


Singapore kept its schools open and seems to have fought off the worst of the virus . This argument has been explicitly used by Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Teachers Describe their Day at School

On the other hand, teachers argue that they have been left an enormous and impossible burden. Margaret in the Western Suburbs of Sydney speaks about what kids do at her school:

"Kids get in a crowded bus and they scuffle and poke each other. Kids in State schools spend a lot of time in crowded playgrounds hemmed in with many demountable classrooms. They queue up and go into class. They sit in crowded classrooms because a few teachers manage to vanish from schools, leaving the conscientious ones to manage classes that have been doubled-up. We can't get casual teachers to come. And so kids go through the day touching themselves, poking other kids, sharing their snacks and lunches and taking a bite out of someone else's sandwich. And they are expected to practise social distancing!"

Alicia, another New South Wales teacher, says: "Maybe kids in other countries behave well. Our kids don't. They crowd around us all the time and they think social distancing is a big joke. They hand in work on germy or grubby bits of paper and we have to mark it. We show them videos about washing hands and they laugh. We tell them not to touch and they straight away touch each other. There isn't any soap in kids' toilets and nobody makes them wash their hands so they don't do it. Teachers are now expected to be nurses as well as instructors and all the other things we have to do. "

Pamela, a teacher from a country school in New South Wales says: "Kids think everything has to be questioned and they don't respect authority. Heaven knows what their parents are telling them. Kids are sent to school coughing and sneezing, and say 'Yes Miss, but Mum said I have to go to school'. They've heard all the arguments about schools closing and they hope that any day soon, they will be told school is out and they can lie on the beach all day or laze around on the couch at home. Don't forget just a couple of weeks ago, our Prime Minister told everyone the crisis wasn't too serious and he was going to the footy on the weekend".

Teachers have their own problems, and are talking about them on social media. They know they are subject to getting the virus, just like everyone else. Some have asthma. Some are diabetic. Some have mobility issues. Hand sanitiser and other products are is short supply in teachers' staffrooms and toilets. There are very few younger teachers and fewer males every year, especially in State schools, primary schools most of all. Thus teaching is mostly done by middle-aged, middle-class females in school after school. The demands placed on them would be rejected by almost any other group. Our teaching force is aging every year: the average age of teachers in New South Wales State schools goes up every year by some eight or nine months, I was told some years ago. And it hasn't improved.Thus many teachers are really in high-risk categories. Teachers feel they are the bunnies who have to struggle through harder and harder days, just to keep the economy going. They are very anxious about what will happen once flu season starts in June and July, when many schools struggle every year already. All these stresses are felt disproportionately by State schools, which are under funded. Maintenance is delayed again and again. And enrolments in many parts of New South Wales have soared in recent years, especially in inner-city Sydney and Melbourne where Governments have allowed lots of apartments to be built, but not provided the services that support them.

Some parents have taken their children out of school. Thus in any one day teachers – as well as dealing with increasingly difficult and disobedient kids- can get six or seven calls from angry, stressed-out parents. These are demanding eight weeks of lessons in an attempt to keep their children busy learning at home. Heaven help poorer families who can't afford to buy up-to-date ipads and iphones. Middle-class parents are having more than enough trouble, too.

Life in Singapore

As the Singapore case is being used repeatedly as a model for what Australia should do, it's worth exploring the culture of life there.

Singaporeans are accustomed to a society in which people do as they're told. The famous Orchard Road shopping district was recently made a no-smoking zone. Heavy fines were enforced with a two hundred dollar fine (Singapore dollars). "We have a fine country", a common joke goes. "You get fined for this, and fined for that. There's a fine for everything". If this is not enough, people are deterred by a threat in a not-too-comfortable jail.

When the corona virus arrived, health authorities worked with police to track down sufferers. These people were locked down in their house. CCTV footage and phone calls were used to track people, keep them house-bound and thus stop the virus spreading. Singapore has dealt with earlier viruses like SARS and has learnt what needs to be done. And it is done.

Schools in Singapore

Since news of the virus arrived, Singapore's school-children have been checked by health authorities as soon as they come in the school gate. Children with a high temperature are sent home. Children have to log their temperature daily and report it.

Staff members who have returned from overseas are given two weeks' leave of absence. Children are assigned to seats in class and in the canteen; and they sit there. Education is a great privilege, and parents drill this into their children from an early age. "You must listen to your teachers. Don't get into trouble. Do well in your exams. Get into a good school and go to university . That's the message Singapore kids get, day after day", says John, who grew up there. And when they become older, the same children are expected to look after their parents. No wonder these kids are crowding into professions like vet science, law and medicine in one country after another, including ours.

But Singapore children are not problem-free. High rates of stress, an excess of rote learning and sometimes suicide are mentioned in a recent article.

What must change?

So let's return to Australia. Teacher stress is well known. It is not too far-fetched to predict that State schools in Australia will have enormous crises from an accumulation of these problems as soon as May or June, especially when flu hits. Teacher unions might be doing their best, but it's not nearly enough. Teachers are disunited- there is no one teacher union- and slow to take industrial action, which is one of many things that might tell governments things are urgent.

Governments seem worried by the number of angry interest groups demanding attention: airlines, cafes, hotels, and of all people, rugby league players and their employers. Teachers feel they are at the end of the queue. You would have to wonder how governments will attract- and retain – good teachers in the future, if these working conditions for teachers persist.

What needs to happen in Australian schools? Children coming to class should be tested for fever.

We have to reinforce teachers' authority, in all kinds of ways.

We must keep schools at a manageable size, and stop selling off school land.

Society must get used to the idea that schools have authority over children. Children who are sick must be sent home and stay there.

At present, many schools are limping along from day to day. Teachers' health and mental well-being are at risk of breaking down. Governments must act swiftly, or there will be drastic consequences. Then schools will have to close down, indeed. And desperate parents will have to look elsewhere for someone to mind and educate their kids.

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Note: Names of interviewees have been changed, in accordance with common research practice.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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