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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!"

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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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