The teachers we’ve spoken to don’t want to go back to remote learning, but they are rightly anxious. Like so many of us, there are teachers with underlying health conditions, family members who are immunocompromised, and who live in vulnerable communities. They want, and deserve, safe workplaces.
Scientific evidence in Australia and internationally continues to suggest children are at very low risk of becoming seriously unwell from COVID-19, including Omicron. While but severe outcomes rarely can occur, especially if unvaccinated, death is very rare and vaccines are protective. Parents too are anxious. A recent survey from The Parenthood found two-thirds of parents don’t believe it’s safe for students to return at the height of this wave of the pandemic.
This policy space is incredibly tricky. We must continue to be led by the best available public health advice.
It means accelerating the vaccine rollout for students and third doses for adults, prioritising the vulnerable. It means ensuring classrooms have adequate ventilation and high-quality masks (P2/N95) are worn. It means a rigorous testing and isolation regime.
Ensuring these things are in place means prioritising the safety of our school communities.
When a safe workplace can be assured, we must prioritise getting kids back in school. And have in place contingencies for children who are too vulnerable to come to school yet, such as those with immunodeficiency and who are not fully vaccinated, or catch the virus and are isolating.
If we must call on a workforce that has been out of the classroom for some years, then we need to ensure they are supported to deliver quality teaching. If we are concerned about the long-term impact this period will have on a teaching profession already under pressure and amid warnings of looming shortages, then we need to invest in programs that lift morale, efficacy and school culture.
Now, perhaps more than ever, students need teachers who can nurture their learning and their wellbeing. Teachers – new, retired, experienced or yet-to-graduate – should have access to the latest evidence on how to ensure strong outcomes for all students.
This time of year is normally one of excitement. Instead, we are faced with trepidation and an abundance of caution. We recognise the enormous challenges of juggling the economy, education, and health. We must do all we can to ensure students and teachers are not casualties; we must continue to heed the best scientific evidence available, in both health and education.
Laureate Professor Jenny Gore is the director of the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle.
Laureate Professor Nick Talley is a clinician researcher and the editor-in-chief of the Medical Journal of Australia.
This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 24 January 2022