Where We’ve Got To
What we have learned from government responses to this pandemic is that expecting certainty of policy is not possible. Similarly, school policy had been formulated based on the best information at the relevant time, but schools must be prepared to change their original policy if further information comes to hand that justifies amending it.
Due to the fast-moving nature of the current pandemic situation and the shifting government advice, schools have been given limited leeway as to how they choose to balance protecting the interests of the larger group with the rights and interests of individuals.
Over the next few weeks those students who haven’t already done so will be returning to face-to-face schooling. Several of the state government announcements have indicated that the return to school for public school students will be done in stages. Many non-government schools are choosing different schedules for the return to face-to-face learning over the coming weeks and there are variations across the state and territories.
Most of us will recall that closure of boarding facilities in some schools began shortly after the Prime Minister’s Press Release on 18 March, which included the following:
The National Cabinet noted that boarding schools are “at high risk of transmission” and encouraged boarding schools and parents to “consider the risks versus the benefits of a student remaining in boarding school”.
Several boarding schools decided to pre-empt the possible parent reactions and began to close their boarding facilities shortly afterwards. There are still arguments as to why they should not be reopening. The rapid spread of infection of passengers on cruise ships has indicated how effectively this virus can spread in close living-quarters environments.
There is no doubt that there were many issues that arose from the decision to close boarding facilities. Some of these included what to do about overseas students who were here on E500 Visas with specific requirements for their education and welfare, the return of regional or rural students to their homes, the availability of online learning for boarders who are now off campus, staffing regarding supervision, meals, cleaning and so forth, and of course, financial implications relating to payment of staff and the loss of fees.
Nonetheless, it was decided by government, parents and schools that the risk of transmission was far greater than the benefits of the students remaining in the boarding facilities. Under the various Work Health and Safety Acts, schools had little option other than to ensure that all students in boarding facilities were safe, and rather than mitigating for the risks, many schools chose risk aversion by closing the facilities. It just made good sense.
However, schools now need to address issues and risks in relation to re-opening boarding facilities. Boarding facilities may need to look at re-starting very much in the way that they do at the commencement of a new academic year. However, there are a number of issues (risks) that schools may wish to contemplate to ensure that they plan effectively for their re-opening.
Issues and Risks to Contemplate
Australian life, as we know it, has changed considerably over the last few months and there are many more changes still to come. No amount of crystal-ball gazing can determine what is in store for schools and their students. This week there have been media reports about a school with boarding facilities having a student test positive for COVID-19.
However, one matter that is 100 per cent guaranteed is that schools will continue to care for and educate students and, eventually, overseas and regional students will return to boarding facilities in order to continue with their education.
The issues and risks listed below are only representative of what boarding schools may need to prepare for. Many will have far fewer issues, and some may have more. However, it is essential that governing bodies and executive teams address these issues when re-opening their school’s boarding facilities.
Access to regional centres and certainly to remote communities has been restricted to slow down the spread of this virus.
There are many indigenous boarders who live in remote communities but attend metropolitan boarding schools in the larger cities. If they have returned to their communities and the communities are ‘locked down’, noting that internet access is at best less than adequate, then these students will be further affected by potentially having fallen behind their peers.
Parents may be fearful that the virus may not have been fully eradicated, returning students may carry it back in or the boarding facility has been insufficiently cleaned resulting in new or re-infections. Although there is no evidence to support that any virus can survive for more than a few hours outside of a living host, fear is a strong influencer of decisions-even if it may seem somewhat irrational.
Parents of Chinese students may also be wary of xenophobic, racist or bullying behaviour that may be directed towards their children on their return to school. Some bullying behaviour of Chinese or Asian students had already been reported by some parents in a small number of schools when COVID-19 first appeared in Australia in February/March. Schools can take steps to ameliorate the adverse effects on the individuals who have been the targets of the bullies by communicating with them as clearly and supportively as possible and by offering to support the returning students with more than just platitudes or assurances that they will not be targeted.
Cleaning and Sanitising
Boarding facilities, including all peripheral facilities such as dining rooms, laundries, medical facilities and so forth will require effective cleaning regimes to ensure that all surfaces that are capable of harbouring the virus have been adequately sanitised. The steps that the boarding schools are taking in this respect will need to be communicated to all parents and boarders.
Schools will need to ensure that cleaning staff are well trained in the most up to date and effective techniques to ensure that the risk of re-transmission of the virus is removed.
Trauma, Grief and Loss
As with the bushfire crises of December and January, it is highly probable that many children and staff will return to school carrying a burden of fear and/or even loss and schools should, once again, prepare for this possibility. Schools supported their staff and students through the very real trauma, grief and loss that many experienced as they returned for the new year.
Our schools were seen as being on the front line in caring for students during and following these earlier events. There is no doubt that they are, once again, well placed to be on the front line for the response to COVID-19.
There will be staffing issues too. Many staff, particularly casual staff or international staff on gap-year programs may have been stood down or they may have returned to their home country. Schools may be hard pressed to engage new staff to replace them or, if they are able to do so, the new staff will require induction and training. There is an immense amount of training and cultural understanding and acceptance that takes place with boarding staff and well-trained replacements may not be so easy to come by.
In addition, will new or returning supervisory staff be trained in crisis management or trauma or grief management? Given that some families around the country may be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic through direct or indirect loss of family members, would it not be sensible for staff to receive training in well-being and grief management?
Media coverage has been extensive and many images of human suffering in places such as the United Kingdom and Italy have been broadcast almost indiscriminately. Remember that children can and will feed on the behaviour and emotions of parents, other children and the staff of their school. Research on psychological outcomes from disaster media coverage shows that children are particularly vulnerable to trauma resulting from absorbing images and concepts like these that have been broadcast across Australia in recent weeks. In addition, and far closer to home, many children have seen or experienced first-hand panic buying and hoarding and some other behaviours that were not apparent during our earlier bushfire crisis.
CompliSpace has made a number of resources available for schools regarding COVID-19 training including on-line training for staff. They can be accessed here.
School Financial Issues
The Western Australian Government has announced that all public servants will have access to 20 days of COVID-19 paid leave if their paid personal, carers, or sick leave entitlements are exhausted. This will not affect an employee's annual leave or long service leave. Can non-government schools afford to do this? Will staff expect to be paid if they are required to self-isolate for two to three months and, as in the case of boarding facilities, no on-line learning can occur?
Fees for full fee paying overseas students (FFPOS) can be anywhere between $18-$37k+ per annum. Plus add boarding fees if they are boarders. In a large school, this could amount to $65-$70k+ per annum in fees per student. So, if a school has many FFPOS and none are eligible to remain at school, what losses can that school expect? What if the parents choose to enrol their child in a school in another country? For example, Canada has been a very popular alternative choice to Australia.
According to the Australian Hotels Association, the closure of venues around the country has had devastating effects on 250,000 jobs. There are many other businesses that may have also been and continue to be badly affected by the economic downturn and have had to close or have been declared bankrupt. Parents, many of whom may have lost income and livelihoods over business closures, may not be in a financial position to return their child to a boarding facility.
If parents choose not to return their children to the school for whatever reason, following the re-opening of the boarding facilities, this could mean a large loss in fees and government grants and it could result in a cash flow loss that would be difficult to recoup.
Given the ‘scramble’ to prepare for what may have been up to a term or more of online learning, schools may not have had the time to commence to plan for when this crisis is averted and they go back to ‘normal’. This is especially important for boarding schools.
Yes, it will be like the start of a new year, but also like no start before. There will be possible staff and student changes but possibly more than usual changes in policies and procedures to maintain the health of all boarders and staff, changes in EXEAT formats, especially for longer term breaks and, above all, just as there was following WWII, there may also be a sense of accomplishment and victory.
Use this to build up your boarding house spirit. After all, you are the family with whom these students spend most of their formative years!