January 2022 marked the time the time the National Cabinet agreed to a national framework to promote a statewide consistent approach to the ongoing delivery of high-quality education with a commitment to keeping schools open as the pandemic continued into its third year. Education Matters takes a look at what the new normal might look like across classrooms as the academic year unfolds.
Currently, the operational plans include masks, rapid antigen testing, outside learning and restrictions on assemblies and events, with the National Framework aiming to ensure all schools and Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) are able to remain open. The framework is based around six guiding principles including: ECEC services and schools are essential and should be the first to open and the last to close wherever possible in outbreak situations, with face-to-face learning prioritised.
With every state having had learning disrupted to various extents since the pandemic began, the repercussions of this are only just being fully understood and have been felt more strongly in some states and territories than others. Students in Melbourne have not had an uninterrupted term since 2019 and have had face to face schooling suspended for over 220 days since March 2020. Some children in Victoria who started prep in 2020 have never experienced a normal year of school, says Kate Korber, mother of two and Head of Learning and Teaching, St Thomas More Primary School, Melbourne.
“My son who is now in Year 2 hasn’t really had school for two years. He hasn’t really experienced what school life is like. There is a curriculum, and we can deliver that but all the other amazing experiences of being involved with each other, with other year levels, is the one thing we really craved at the end of remote learning,” Korber says.
Research published in January by The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute shows that child and adolescent mental health difficulties, and physical health problems have increased across the 2020-2021 lockdown period in Victoria and that the potential impacts on health and development are likely to be long lasting. The National Framework states that keeping ECEC and schools open is important to children’s learning, social and emotional development, wellbeing, physical and mental health. Children benefit most from face-to-face learning and further interruptions should be avoided, where possible.
“This year the most important thing is kids being together and the thing that we’ve noticed especially with our Grade 1, 2 and even our preps is that they don’t know how to be together. They have forgotten how to work in teams, how to share, how to take turns, how to communicate, so for us, school at the moment is re-learning how to be together,” says Korber “When kids come to school, we are able to supply them with a safe, supportive, familiar experience as much as we can and that is really what we are focusing on this year. It’s really about giving the kids what they should have had these last two years.”
The National Framework requires all state and territory governments to outline individual operational plans in consultation with relevant stakeholders, schools and ECEC sectors. New South Wales and Victoria collaborated on their plans which included twice weekly rapid antigen tests for staff and students for the first four weeks of term one. Face masks, that have become a part of everyday life for older Australians, were introduced across various year groups. Measures to reduce mixing, congregating for events and assemblies, improving ventilation and prioritising outside learning where possible have been included across state and territory plans.
What COVID-19 safe measures will stay and what will go as we move through the 2022 school year are likely to be dependent on a number of factors including the community transmission rates, explains Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair in Epidemiology, Deakin University. “While I’m a supporter of masks, they can make a difference, requiring them on an ongoing and inconsistent basis is problematic if you can’t justify why one group of kids has it and others don’t, in particularly state to state and across age groups. I think class or state-specific rules will disappear and probably not come back as vaccinations slowly creep up in numbers across all the childhood age groups. And we don’t have to reach incredibly high vaccination levels to still be in a safe environment in the current situation, with Omicron being dominant and those infection numbers decreasing in the community,” Bennett says.
‘’In schools we are happy to do what we need to do to keep our children and our staff safe but at the same time, we would love not to have to wear a mask,” says Korber. “A huge part of expressive and receptive language is being able to read facial expressions, lip reading, that is a huge part of learning for us that really impacts on children’s ability to communicate with each other.”
Professor Bennett predicts that as rapid antigen tests work best in high infection environments, we may expect to see active surveillance being reintroduced as part of localised plans later in the year if there is an outbreak.
“In terms of rapid antigen tests, active surveillance is only recommended in critical outbreak settings, and that is where we were with Omicron. Even though we were past the peak of omicron in the eastern states, it was still important as we still had quite high rates in the community,” she says. “We have to recognise that things will change as the year goes on and stabilise for a while. So, I do think the active testing will stop in most areas and then we will see local responses that might include testing if the situation changes.’’
Bennett says that some measures are here to stay, such as outdoor lessons, ventilation and how children come together. “It’s trying to keep education happening but it’s also thinking creatively about how we can do it so it’s not a virus heaven,’’ she says. “There are a lot of things that have come out of this that not only help reduce or contain the risk of spread but also reduce that transmission of colds and flu and other pathogens that also spread through the same sorts of mixing, such as thinking about ventilation and how schools are put together and how we use that space. I think a shift in the way we think about schooling will happen. Hopefully it will be something that is engineered in the future to school design and school refurbishments.”
It’s clear that Australia wide continuity in operational approaches is hoped for during the year and that a sense of normality for children returns along with a full year of face-to-face teaching.
Bennett says 2022 brings a greater understanding of our level of protection from serious illness and this uncoupling of infection rates and serious illness. She believes it would be good to see all the states come into alignment. “We’ve gone through the Omicron wave at different times, and we’re at different points in our vaccine rollouts, but that is going to level out as the year goes on. So, the first thing would be, hopefully, there would be agreements across states to be a standard, evidence based approach to what measures would be required and under what circumstances,” she says.
Korber says Victorian schools are pushing towards trying to get back towards some normal school life, but there are still lots of little aspects of life that they can’t do because it’s not a 100 per cent safe yet. “We would love to be able to hold whole school events like art shows or fetes, our canteen has only just opened, we have a buddy programme with grade 6 and prep who still can’t be together as we can’t mix year groups. It’s little things that we are hoping will come back this year, as we get a little bit more comfortable with knowing how to run things safely,” says Korber. “We just want to get back to being educators. I feel that what we are looking forward to is just teaching again, doing the fun things that make being a kid in school such an amazing place to be.”
First published in Education Matters Secondary Print edition published April 2022.