After weeks of remote learning due to COVID-19, many school students in New South Wales began a staggered return to classrooms this week. Students in other states, such as some in Queensland, were also back in the classroom from Monday.
Others like Victoria are weeks away from returning. Premier Daniel Andrews said some students (in prep, years 1 and 2, and years 11 and 12) will go back to school on May 26. And Western Australia’s Premier Mark McGowan announced all school students in the state must return to the classroom from May 18.
We surveyed more than 10,000 public school teachers in NSW to find out how they felt about being at school at the end of term one, their thoughts on remote learning and feelings about returning to school.
Our survey – with responses from April 17 to May 10 – showed fewer than one in four teachers felt safe working on the school site at the end of term one. But nearly 95% felt safe working from home.
During the school holidays, when the survey began, only 13% of teachers reported feeling happy to continue working in direct contact with children and colleagues.
So, has the flattening of the curve has been enough to reassure teachers it is now safe to work with students and colleagues in schools?
Anxiety about being in the classroom
At the end of term one and the beginning of term two in NSW, many teachers were delivering online lessons from their classrooms to students at home, as well as to smaller numbers of students who continued to attend school.
Almost all these teachers felt pressured to continue working on the school site.
One teacher said:
As an older teacher with an older husband at home who has compromised lungs, I feel very anxious about being at school. I do not appreciate, after teaching in the public system for 40 years, being treated as a guinea pig and a political scapegoat.
Although teachers found remote learning difficult, more than 95% agreed it was needed to control the outbreak. More than 60% felt it would have been beneficial to introduce remote learning earlier.
More than 60% of teachers reported high levels of anxiety due to risks posed by the virus. One teacher said about returning to school:
I worry about teacher health if we return to face-to-face learning. My health condition has changed recently, and my anxiety about potentially having to return to school is increasing.
Much of the argument for reopening schools has focused on children being less likely to fall ill from the virus than adults. But many teachers argue that belies the fact children can be infected and transmit the virus.
As one teacher told us:
Students have contact with adults, and students can be carriers. It is ludicrous to expect teachers to return to work and put themselves and their families at risk. It is also ludicrous to ask teachers to be teaching effectively on site, when their stress levels will be going through the roof with fear of exposure to the virus.
Many said schools needed better protective equipment. In the lead-up to remote learning, schools had not been provided with masks or gloves. Many schools said they didn’t have enough soap or hand sanitiser.
We had no sanitiser, no soap and minimal toilet paper. We were not provided masks, gloves or any protective gear. Teachers had to buy their own hand soap for staff rooms. As time went on we had less and less. With the shopping centres emptying while we were working, we were not even able to buy supplies ourselves. The conditions are disgraceful.
One teacher said:
If protective equipment [masks and gloves] and regular cleaning by an external service were provided as well as sanitiser and soap, I feel it would be safe to have students back on a reduced timetable if needed.
Teachers’ concerns for their students
More than 80% of teachers felt unprepared for remote learning and faced a steep learning curve. But more than 80% reported being well supported by colleagues and school executives.
Overall, around 70% felt the arrangements were an adequate substitute given the circumstances, but only 25% were confident their students were learning well.
To support families with limited online resources, more than one-third of public school teachers printed and delivered pen and paper packages to students.
More than 80% were particularly worried about students with special needs, many of whom are at higher risk from the disease and also vulnerable to educational disruption.
One teacher said:
Most of my students have very limited access to internet […] most rarely make contact and are clearly struggling to engage in work.
Most teachers (80%) felt they were well resourced to teach remotely. But only about one-third felt their students were well resourced at home. Some 40% were clear many students were not properly resourced, and about 25% were unsure.
About half of the teachers felt frustrated by insufficient resources and daily technical difficulties.
An upside to this education disruption?
Although teachers faced many challenges, the majority agreed the pandemic response had also had some positive outcomes.
Nearly 90% agreed there was an up-skilling in digital and online education. Large proportions also agreed the pandemic had created more time for families to connect, communicate and work together, more teacher collaboration and greater community respect for teachers.
Finally, perhaps surprisingly, more than 60% agreed the epidemic had created a positive disruption to the current school system. It seems a majority of teachers have been waiting for a dramatic shift to their work. COVID-19 might not have been what they were expecting but many were glad something had changed.
I think this whole situation is an excellent opportunity […] to highlight the reasons behind the inequities that are coming to light. My own experience has been made more positive due to extremely supportive and amazing school executive staff.
Authors: Rachel Wilson, Associate Professor in Education, University of Sydney