Why schools should be reopened as soon as safe

by Danielle Wood and Julie Sonnemann

Published in The Herald Sun, 26 September 2020

On Sunday the Premier will announce a revised plan for lifting coronavirus restrictions after a week of better-than-expected case numbers. All the signs are he will stick with a slow and steady approach. But he is expected to bring the reopening date for some activities forward. Understandably, businesses are jostling to be first in line. But if there is a list to work down, schools should be at the top.

Under the current roadmap, there will be a gradual reopening of schools, with prep to Grade 2 and Years 10-12 due back early in Term 4, and the majority of students from Grades 3 to Year 10 returning after 26 October.

The economic benefits of reopening schools are beyond doubt. Studies from the US and Britain suggest that of all the lockdown restrictions, school closures cause the biggest hit to the economy. The reason is simple: the 20-or-so children that were previously taught face-to-face by a professional for seven hours a day are now supervised by 20 sets of parents, many of whom are trying to juggle their own paid work.

And as the glazed look of any working parents with remote-learning children will tell you: the struggle is real. The 53 per cent of Victorian households with children under 15 that have either both parents in the workforce or a single parent who works, have been at this for the best part of four months. More than 60 cent of Australian dads and almost 70 per cent of mums say they’ve spent more time helping their kids with learning and schoolwork during the COVID crisis.

And given hours in the day haven’t expanded (as much as it might feel like it), hours spent on supervising schoolwork are hours not available for other things. While the additional responsibilities might be managed for a short time by cutting into leisure or sleep, the longer classrooms are closed the harder it is for parents to keep all the balls in the air. Mental-stress has increased more dramatically among parents during COVID than any other group.

Many families decide that one parent will reduce their work hours or even quit their job in order to manage. And this is more often the mother. One US study found that mothers with young children reduced their work hours by 4-to-5 times more than fathers with young children during the lockdowns. While we don’t have similar survey evidence for Victoria, more women than men have dropped out of the workforce, meaning they are neither working nor looking for work. Over time this will widen the already large earnings gaps between men and women. The jokes about returning to the 1950s come with a ring of truth.

Of course, the should-schools-reopen debate is not just about parents and work. Children’s learning and development suffer when they spend extended periods away from the classroom. Most students are likely to have learnt less during lockdown. Many will have had less support from their teachers, have struggled to work independently, and felt isolated from their classmates and friends.

Teachers now have a big challenge to help students readjust to school. It’s likely to take up to 12 months to bring some classes up to speed. It’s a big task, and reopening schools earlier might just take the heat out of it a little. And it might reduce the number of students who need to repeat a grade.

The most vulnerable students especially need to go back to school. Children from poorer families, or those already at risk of disengaging with school, have been hit hardest by the move to remote schooling. Our analysis shows the gap in learning between rich and poor students widens three times as fast during lockdown. To help disadvantaged students catch-up, we recommend governments make big investments in extra tutoring, and literacy and numeracy support. This will cost more money and teacher time.

Of course, we should only open schools when it is safe to do so. The latest evidence is that school transmission risk is low, especially for primary schools. A phased re-opening of schools in suburbs where there is no community transmission would be safest for both teachers and students and should not imperil our track toward zero cases.

The report card is in. If we are to get an early mark on any of the current lockdown restrictions, a smart Premier will have schools at the top of the class.