Education sector responds to COVID-19

12 May 2020

Primary and secondary schools around Australia have experienced a chaotic start to term two this year faced with conflicting advice from different levels of government. 

In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews had initially been adamant that state schools would be closed for the entirety of term two, a position which had  drawn criticism from federal Education Minister Dan Tehan. Few other states have followed suit—Queensland and New South Wales, are planning to gradually reopen schools throughout the term, while South Australia is keeping schools open, but with attendance optional. Tuesday’s announcement from Daniel Andrews, however, reflects an approach that is more consistent with the rest of the country. As of May 12th, Andrews announced that VCAL, VCE, Prep and grades 1 and 2 would return to the classroom on May 26th. Years 3 to 10 are expected to return from June 9th.

From the beginning however, the federal advice has been to reopen early, with the Morrison government offering independent and Catholic schools financial incentives to reopen by June. This is complicated by the nature of school administration in Australia—while state schools are run by state authorities, independent schools are funded by the federal government. 

A University of Melbourne alumna currently teaching at a Victorian K-12 independent school Jacqui Lupton says, “Generally, I think that the [federal incentives] come across as a bit of a bribe, and I don’t think anybody’s happy with that.”

“The health and safety of staff and students is paramount, so if the medical advice of the state government is saying schools should stay out for term two, that’s what [independent school boards] will abide by.”

Current University of Melbourne students are also affected by the ambiguity, particularly students with children of their own. PhD candidate and the Graduate Student Association Families Officer Lubna Meempatta said, “The lockdown has definitely put us in a difficult position as we have to spend a lot of time home-schooling our kids while keeping up with our university studies.”

“Schools reopening will definitely help our families, but this should be done only when it is perfectly safe to do so, otherwise there will be so much stress and anxiety around the health and safety of our kids.”

It remains to be seen whether changes in primary and secondary education will also affect the delivery of semester two for tertiary students. The University of Melbourne is “preparing for possible scenarios”, from full continuation of online learning, a resumption of in-person classes, or a mixed-mode delivery. Besides this, the COVID-19 Emergency Support Fund will remain open until August 31 this year. However, no concrete changes to Student Support (Financial Aid) or Counselling and Psychological Services capacity has been earmarked for certain as yet. 

Other universities are also monitoring the situation as it develops, though some, such as Flinders University, are already planning to make semester two classes available online while others, such as Monash University, have delayed the start of next semester altogether. The University of Queensland has done both.

However, while semester two 2020 remains tentative, a delayed start to semester one 2021 appears likely in Victoria. Following the postponement of Year 12 exams to December 2020, the Andrews government has asked tertiary institutions across the state to adjust their academic calendars to accommodate this change. Swinburne University has announced a delayed 2021 commencement, as well as adjust their admissions procedures; however, other institutions are yet to follow suit.

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