School’s back full time but transport issues remain unresolved

Warnervale’s MacKillop Catholic College is the only school not opening next week

[Central Coast] School is officially back in session for all public school students, with the NSW Government ordering a return to full time schooling from May 25.

NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, confirmed the move to return students to the classroom on May 19.

Berejiklian said a return to full-time face to face teaching and learning is crucial for the education progress of every child in NSW, from Kindergarten to Year 12.

“Since starting a managed return to the classroom, we have seen a strong degree of confidence from our school communities in managing COVID-19, and a clear desire for all students to be back at school,” Berejiklian said.

“We expect schools to stick with the health advice – increased cleaning, access to hygiene supplies and compliance with hygiene practices – and look forward to seeing all students back on campus five days a week.

“The health advice is very clear, a return to full-time face to face teaching is safe,” Berejiklian said.

Minister for Education, Sarah Mitchell, said that over the last two weeks, schools have been working hard to support students to practice good hygiene and implement new routines at school, which has been successful in giving the community confidence that full-time face to face teaching can resume.

“Our principals, teachers, support staff, parents and carers have gone above and beyond to continue the education of our students while we respond to this pandemic,” Minister Mitchell said.

“Schools will need to maintain the measures and precautions they have put in place for the foreseeable future, including no assemblies and excursions.

“Teachers will be focused on identifying where their students are at in their education and we will be supporting them to recognise and assist those students who need additional help,” she said.

Catholic schools across the Coast are also to make a full return to school from the 25th, bar MacKillop Catholic College, which will return to full schooling the week after.

The full return will not be without its challenges however, with Central Coast Council of Parents and Citizens Association President, Sharryn Brownlee, indicating that her organisation had been made aware of several of the community’s concerns, the most immediate being transport.

According to Brownlee, concerns abounded about how students will travel to and from school in the wake of the government’s COVIDSafe Transport Plan, which was unveiled on May 18.

The plan calls for people to avoid utilising public transport during peak times and includes the adoption of social distancing measures on buses and trains.

With little advice on how that will affect students, Brownlee said parents were worried how these changes will impact their children’s ability to travel.

There’s also concerns about how social distancing could be observed on dedicated school buses without disrupting the run.

“The Central Coast school system is dependent on buses and there’s been little advice given on if there’ll be extra services.

“Right now, there’s a very real fear that buses will just drive right by students if they’re at social distancing capacity,” Brownlee said.

Disruption to bus schedules could also have unforeseen consequences for schools, with many planning their daily operations around these schedules.

The government directive for people to drive more and use public transport less was also worrying.

“Putting aside the fact that not all parents have the means to drive their children to school every day, getting around the Coast during school drop off and pick up times was already a problem for most, and any increase in traffic around schools is undoubtably going to cause issues,” Brownlee said.

The other big issues on parents’ radars were school cleanliness and hygiene, communication and support for senior students.

“I’m hearing a lot of scepticism from parents about how schools will keep up with cleaning with a full return.

“Cleanliness has been an issue for a number of years for some schools, and there’s concerns around things like the use of sanitizer, effective handwashing and equipment sharing, particularly among younger students who can’t comprehend the seriousness of the situation,” Brownlee said.

While the pandemic has created an unprecedented situation for all students, the most impacted have been seniors undergoing their HSC.

With these students at the apex of their schooling, Brownlee believes that creating equity for this cohort will be the major challenge for the remainder of the school year.

“The disruption to seniors is such a complex issue.

“The digital divide was apparent during Term 1, and work needs to be done to ensure that some students aren’t left behind,” Brownlee said.

The HSC issue is compounded by the fact that not all subjects were impacted equally by the switch to online learning, with students whose courses incorporated performances, bodies of work or other practical elements more disadvantaged than their peers, by being denied access to resources, equipment and valuable real time instruction and feedback.

The fact that teachers at a higher risk from the virus may also not return to their classrooms, is adding further cause for concern.

Brownlee hopes the Education Minister will step up and announce additional resources and support for HSC students in the near future.

“What students and families want is more assurances from their principals, their government and the Minister, that there will be equity and that they won’t be left behind.

“We’re already predicting a spike in misadventure applications and what we don’t want to see come December is a huge surge in appeals and complaints about HSC results.

“Families want to be reassured that their children are on an equal playing field and that obvious disadvantage due to COVID-19 is addressed,” Brownlee said.

Brownlee wants that support to come in the form of more concise communication from the Minister and Department of Education, and the acquisition of more teachers.

“We know that at least 25 per cent of students did not engage with online learning at all.

“With an $18B budget, I see no reason why funds can’t be allocated to secure supplementary staff to help bridge the gap, especially for HSC students.

“This would put a lot of anxious minds at ease,” Brownlee said.

Media statements, May 19
Gladys Berejiklian, NSW Government
Catholic Schools NSW
Interview, May 19
Sharryn Brownlee, Central Coast Council of Parents and Citizens Association
Reporter: Dilon Luke