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Senior medical officer’s Q&A clash with Teachers’ Federation on reopening classrooms amid COVID-19

An education union boss has suggested teachers aren’t frontline workers like nurses and should be kept away from school so they don’t congregate with their colleagues.

One of Australia’s most senior medical officers challenged the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation on the ABC’s Q&A program, declaring schools needed to reopen because online lessons were unsustainable.

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy has said children were a low coronavirus risk. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian want classroom lessons to resume, with her Victorian Labor counterpart Daniel Andrews for now opposed.

One of Australia’s most senior medical officers challenged the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation on the ABC’s Q&A program, declaring schools needed to reopen because online lessons were unsustainable. Pictured  is Sydney schoolboy Phoenix Crawford doing lessons on a laptop at home

NSW Teachers’ Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos argued his members needed to be kept at home so they didn’t come into contact with other adults during the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Well, first of all, let’s acknowledge as we all should our nurses and our doctors for the wonderful work that they’re doing,’ he told the ABC’s Q&A program.

‘They are absolutely on the frontline.

‘Teaching is a bit different because what we see in any one work site, a school, is in some instances is 200 or more adults congregating together.’

Nick Coatsworth, a deputy chief medical officer with the federal Department of Health in Canberra, said primary school-aged children needed to return to school because online lessons weren’t sustainable.

‘My kids need the interaction of the classroom,’ he said.

‘They’re suffering without it and I worry that if that’s happening to my kids there must be a whole swathe of children out there who are in the same sort of position.

‘Whilst I completely agree, it’s a great opportunity to learn from these great online techniques, they’re not a sustainable solution as far as I can see.’

NSW Teachers' Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos argued his members needed to be kept at home so they didn't come into contact with their colleagues during the COVID-19 pandemic

NSW Teachers’ Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos argued his members needed to be kept at home so they didn’t come into contact with their colleagues during the COVID-19 pandemic

A viewer from Victoria had asked Mr Gavrielatos why teachers could choose to stay at home when cleaners and supermarket check-out workers still had to turn up in person.

CORONAVIRUS CASES IN AUSTRALIA: 6,728

New South Wales: 3,009

Victoria: 1,351

Queensland: 1,033

Western Australia: 549

South Australia: 438

Tasmania: 214

Australian Capital Territory: 106

Northern Territory: 28

TOTAL CASES:  6,728

RECOVERED: 5,588

DEAD: 84

The education union boss argued that unlike supermarkets, schools couldn’t implement 1.5-metre social distancing practices for teachers.  

‘It’s a bit different to what we see at the supermarket for example where the social distancing practices that they put in place are quite remarkable, including now, perspex protectors in front of those serving at each check-out,’ Mr Gavrielatos said.

‘Schools are very different, levels of interaction are very different.

‘We’re talking about a lot of people on one site at any one time.’

Mr Gavrielatos also claimed the federal government’s COVID-19 schools policy had ‘contradictions with respect to the application of safe social distancing principles’.

‘We’re being told that kids, for example, are not allowed to play in a public playground yet when it comes to a school playground, literally divided by a fence, somehow it’s okay,’ he said.

Nick Coatsworth, a deputy chief medical officer with the federal Department of Health in Canberra, said primary school-aged children needed to return to school because online lessons weren't sustainable

Nick Coatsworth, a deputy chief medical officer with the federal Department of Health in Canberra, said primary school-aged children needed to return to school because online lessons weren’t sustainable

‘We’re told students should not be looked after by their grandparents but then again we’re told that it’s okay to be taught by someone else’s grandparents.

‘These contradictions weigh heavily on teachers and the circumstances are different from other occupations.’

Dr Coatsworth took Mr Gavrielatos to task, explaining why the federal government’s Australian Health Protection Principal Committee had a different policy for school and public playgrounds.

‘The selective cherry picking of things like the public versus the school playgrounds: we’ve been very clear at the AHPPC that the reason that it’s okay to have playgrounds in schools is because you can clean them, because you can regulate them, because you can make them a safer place,’ he said.

Dr Coatsworth took Mr Gavrielatos to task, explaining why the federal government's Australian Health Protection Principal Committee had a different policy for school and public playgrounds. Pictured is a closed playground at Albert Park in Melbourne

Dr Coatsworth took Mr Gavrielatos to task, explaining why the federal government’s Australian Health Protection Principal Committee had a different policy for school and public playgrounds. Pictured is a closed playground at Albert Park in Melbourne 

‘If there are schools that have public access playgrounds, we’re absolutely clear on that: children shouldn’t be allowed there.’

Dr Coatsworth also challenged the notion teachers who were grandparents would be made to return to the classroom.

‘It’s never been about grandparents themselves. It’s about the age of the teacher and the potential conditions they may have that render them a vulnerable worker in the workplace,’ he said.

‘Our advice has been clear: like any workplace, whether you’re a nurse or a doctor or a teacher, if you’re a vulnerable person in the workplace, you must be found alternative duties that involve you being at home.’ 

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