NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, announced on Friday her roadmap for the staggered return to face-to-face learning across Greater Sydney from October 25.
This plan will see Kindergarten and Year 1 return to school from October 25, Year 2, Year 6 and Year 11 from November 1 and the remainder of the school population from November 8. The Higher School Certificate exams will also be delayed until November.
But according to the NSW Teachers Federation President, Angelo Gavrielatos, the implementation of this plan is conditional on “two critical health factors”: a double dose vaccination rate of 70-80 percent of the eligible population, and that cases in impacted areas be 50 or less per 100,000 people.
Mr Gavrielatos says whilst he acknowledges this science, there still needs to be a more targeted application of health advice across the education sector.
“We have said, since the beginning of this pandemic and certainly since the second Delta wave, that we respect the science. What we seek is a consistent application of health advice and restrictions in all settings across impacted communities, including our schools,” Mr Gavrielatos tells The Greek Herald.
“We certainly hope that the caseload declines dramatically. We certainly hope that the vaccination rates and the double dose vaccination rates continue to grow. We certainly want our students to return to face-to-face teaching however when it’s safe to do so when those conditions, as announced by the Premier, are met.”
‘It’s extremely distressing’:
Anna*, who is a Sydney teacher and mum-of-two, echoes Mr Gavrielatos’ sentiments and says she’s ‘very nervous’ about sending her daughter back to Kindergarten because of the high number of local COVID-19 cases in the state.
“I see none of the numbers coming down… so it’s quite concerning to see the numbers of COVID cases rising, whilst our kids are being forced back unvaccinated and the teachers have been rushed back,” Anna says.
Add to this Anna’s personal experience with COVID-19 after her husband contracted the virus last year and it’s clear this intensifies her hesitation when it comes to Gladys Berejiklian’s return to school plan.
“My daughter had only been in school for four weeks before lockdown so socially, she’s definitely in a bit of limbo and it would be very important for her to be able to get back in a classroom,” Anna says.
“But I’m also very nervous because my husband actually had COVID last year and so I know what’s involved when it comes into the house and it’s extremely distressing.
“The mental toll was enormous, the physical toll of having to clean the house and keep him in quarantine away from the kids and all while suspecting that I had COVID myself, was enormous. So I actually don’t know what we will decide to do.”
‘They will have some sort of protection’:
A poll published by The Greek Herald on Facebook asking what people thought about the plan for schools to return from October 25 saw many others voicing their concerns and even approval.
“Yes [students should return],” writes one reader. “We need some sort of normality back for sanity, even if it is for five weeks.”
NSW Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell, also described the plan on Friday as a “safe and sensible approach.”
“We know that the best teaching and learning happens in the classroom, but we also know it’s really important for the social and emotional wellbeing of our students to be with their friends and back with their teachers,” Mitchell said.
For Angela Boyacioglu, she’s ‘skeptical’ about the return to school plan but doesn’t completely rule it out. Her 11-year-old son, Chris, and 12-year-old daughter, Vanessa, are in Year 5 and Year 7 respectively at schools in Liverpool, which is one of the 12 Local Government Area’s (LGA) of concern across Greater Sydney.
She says she’s not as concerned about Chris returning to school because in her opinion, younger kids are “basically going from home to school” and there’s less of a chance of COVID-19 spreading.
“I really think it affects Vanessa more than Chris because she can’t get motivated. Both of their return dates will be November 8 so it’s a fair distance away and theoretically, they’re only going back for about four weeks and I don’t think that’s enough time for them to play catch up on work they’ve actually missed,” Ms Boyacioglu tells The Greek Herald.
“But I must say that their schools have been a great support system. I get a phone call [from the school] every Monday just to see how we are, how we are travelling mentally… so they’ve been really great.
“We’ve also been made aware that all teachers will have to wear masks, and all high school students will have to wear masks [when schools return], which is some sort of protection.”
Mandatory vaccinations for school teachers:
Besides these mandatory masks, the NSW Government’s return to school plan is also dependent on mandatory vaccinations for school staff.
Anna says this pre-condition was stressful for her as a teacher because she struggled to find a vaccination appointment due to confusing government information and the fact that she was only eligible for Pfizer “a few days ago.”
“When it was announced on Friday that schools were going back I thought, ‘I’m going to have to go back to school and I’m unvaccinated.’ It was very nerve-wracking,” Anna says.
Although Anna has since received her first dose of Pfizer, the President of the NSW Teachers Federation says she isn’t the only teacher who has found it difficult to get access to vaccines.
Still, Mr Gavrielatos encourages them to keep persisting with the NSW Government’s vaccine rollout because ‘vaccination is key.’
“We recognise and acknowledge the science that vaccines and vaccinations are very important and are a key component in us getting out of this pandemic and we will continue to encourage teachers to be vaccinated and we will continue calling on the government to make sure they address issues of access to vaccination,” Mr Gavrielatos said.
At last count, a survey of 50,000 Department of Education staff found 70 per cent had received their first dose of the vaccination and 40 per cent were fully vaccinated.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.