Without wishing to sound like a character from a movie, the term “pandemic” is derived from the Greek (πᾶν) pan, meaning “all” and (δῆμος) demos meaning “people”. For the WHO to determine that COVID-19 is now a pandemic is a very sobering thought. Interestingly, there does not seem to be a common universally accepted definition of the term. However, what is apparent is that the pandemic COVID-19 has arrived in Australia and we are being asked to prepare for what could possibly be a few months, or more, of disruptions in our lives.
As a school, what will be your priority? Have you developed your business continuity plan? Have you prepared for the possible exit, and then the return, of students and staff? 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 loss and schools should, once again, prepare for this possibility.
If the first few months of 2020 are a precursor of what we may expect for the rest of this year, is Australia looking towards an ‘annus horribilis’ as the Queen once referenced in 1992? From January till now, we have experienced drought, flood, storms, bushfires, loss of lives and property, mass deaths of wildlife, serious financial losses and currently we are a country in lock-down, waiting to see if we can deal with the inevitable advance of COVID-19.
However, as has always been an integral component of our collective Australian spirit, we have risen above each obstacle thrown in our way so far this year. Schools have 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.
The situation, although different, is still dire. The Government may have not yet decreed that Australian schools should be closed, but this may be an inevitability for which we should all prepare.
In late February in a School Governance article, How Will Your School Continue to Operate in a Pandemic?, we advised that schools will be impacted in a number of different ways, from absences of staff and students due to illness or carers’ responsibilities to the disruption of travel arrangements which may affect the ability of staff, students and supplies to reach the school. The recently imposed non-negotiable period of 14 days of self-isolation following the return of any person to Australia from any overseas travel is a classic example.
We also noted that, if a school is likely to be closed for a finite period of a few weeks, the students could continue to learn from home for this period if teachers were given the capability to post lessons online and maintain communication with their classes. It has been noted in many media posts that, although this may be an option for secondary classes, it is less feasible for primary classes.
We asked schools to consider whether wide scale online learning could be made available and we posed several questions that schools would need to contemplate in order to provide effective online learning solutions. In addition, schools also need to consider the human resource issues associated with a closure - especially if it is extended and online learning is not suitable or available.
According to UNESCO the governments in 73 countries have announced or implemented the closure of educational institutions in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.
56 countries have closed schools nationwide, impacting over 516.6 million children and youth. A further 17 countries have implemented localised school closures and, if closures take effect in Australia, several million additional learners will experience education disruption.
According to their website, UNESCO is providing support to countries as they work to minimise the educational disruption and facilitate the continuity of learning, especially for the most vulnerable.
What is apparent for Australian schools is that the decision about whether a school is closed or not may not be left to each school but will probably be a government directive. This may be determined by the Federal Government or perhaps left to each state or territory.
We are already seeing government directives such as the ban on all international trips, with the exception of New Zealand, by WA Schools and the secretary of the NSW Department of Education, Mark Scott, cancelling all excursions, assemblies, travel, concerts and other events to limit exposure. The Guardian quoted Mr Scott as saying, “Schools have been a focus of the community and the government as the impacts of the coronavirus have developed globally,” “From Monday onwards I expect assemblies and substantial gatherings to be cancelled, along with all excursions.” And, according to the ABC, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said that, while schools could remain open now, it was almost certain they would close at some stage.
Staff Training and Preparedness
Media coverage has been extensive and many images of human suffering in countries such as China and Italy have been broadcast almost indiscriminately.
In addition, and far closer to home, many children have seen first-hand, or maybe have experienced first-hand, panic buying and hoarding and some behaviours that were not apparent during our bushfire crisis. Remember that children can and will feed on the behaviour and emotions of parents, other children and the staff of their school.
If your school is required to close for a brief time or even if all schools remain open, you and your staff will certainly be faced with some serious questions about COVID-19 and will have to deal with issues like managing grief, loss and what to do. Questions such as “Will I catch the Coronavirus at school?” or “What do I say to Jack who has lost his Nan?”. At the extreme end, if staff or students die as a result of the virus, is the school prepared in terms of mourning and bereavement support?
It is understood, and often simply assumed, that teachers will play critical roles in helping children deal with traumatic issues. Children look to adults as role models in times of need. Professor Marjory Ebbeck, an early childhood education expert from the University of South Australia (UniSA), was quoted as saying “Teachers are one of the most trusted, reliable and safe adult figures to a child, beyond their immediate family.”
If schools remain open for the short term future, as the Prime Minister seems to currently prefer, "Parliament is essential, going to school is essential, going to work is essential, going about your normal business, taking your kids to preschool, all of these things will continue," the children will want to be assured that they will be safe at school. And their parents will also want the same assurances.
Nearly every department of education in the country is posting information for schools regarding planning for a possible closure. Overseas, such as in the USA, some states have already produced on-line training programs for schools and teachers. However, there seems to be little available for Australian teachers with an Australian context.
Many schools, following the critical incidents earlier this year have ensured that their staff have been trained in trauma and grief issues. But how many have provided their teachers with the correct information about COVID-19 that they can share with the children to prepare them for what is surely on our doorstep and will also assist to allay their fears?
Closure of schools or at least some schools, and certainly components of the curriculum, is inevitable in the very near future. Schools need to have business continuity plans in place along with online learning opportunities for students.
Above all, schools will need to provide training for their staff to help teachers recognise the signs of trauma in students and provide strategies to assist them. They will also need to provide their front-line staff, their teachers and education assistants, with up-to-date information regarding infection control and responses to any breach.
It is essential for this process to begin now, not if and when schools close, and to ensure that if there is a period of closure, that staff can be engaged in valid learning activities that will prepare them for the return of the children.
For schools, they need to prioritise staff training to ensure that the staff are empowered to best care for the children.