Dr WOODRUFF question to MINISTER for EDUCATION and TRAINING, Mr ROCKLIFF
ANMF Tasmania has added its voice to the growing number of teachers, parents and medical professionals calling for our schools to be closed. While it is the case that children often do not get sick with COVID-19 and do not show symptoms, they can still spread the virus to families and to vulnerable family members.
Social distancing cannot work properly in the school situation. Children do not understand it, cannot internalise it, and travel to school on crowded buses. It is fearsomely difficult to enforce effective hand hygiene in a school environment for infection control. Rather than waiting to close schools until Tasmania is much further advanced in the stage of the epidemic, which is tragically what has happened in the United Kingdom, will you act to protect Tasmanians and close schools now?
As the ANMF has said, you can ensure special arrangements for the schooling of children of healthcare workers to make sure they can stay and be schooled so parents can remain in the workforce. Will you extend the Easter holiday period by two weeks either side for at least a six-week closure?
Madam Speaker, I thank the member for her question. We recognise that there is very understandable concern and anxiety right now within our school communities. We are doing everything we can to ensure that the most current advice is communicated to schools and families. As the Premier has said, the health and safety of staff and students is our top priority. We are taking a precautionary approach in implementing measures in public schools on advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which is the key decision-making committee for health and emergencies. It is comprised of all state and territory Chief Health Officers and is chaired by the Australian Chief Medical Officer.
The Education department is working closely with the public health to support schools and students and to ensure the right information is communicated in relation to coronavirus. The situation is constantly evolving as you would appreciate. We will continue to take expert advice and we will respond accordingly.
As the Premier has said, if there was a confirmed case in a school it would close for the appropriate cleaning. The importance of education and continuing learning is also a priority. We do not know how long our state will be dealing with this issue. It could go on for some time and remaining focused on the importance of routine and normality is beneficial and for the mental health and wellbeing of our students.
We have also distributed fact sheets on how to talk to young people about the coronavirus and we are in close contact with other sectors of education. I met with all sector heads yesterday by telephone conference so we can keep those communication channels open and support each other. Precautionary measures have been introduced into our public schools this week to reduce exposure and lower the chance of spreading coronavirus. The Premier has outlined a number of those measures this morning.
The restriction on activities, as the Premier outlined, will be in place until further notice and will be weekly reviewed. I have written to all principals about the importance of supporting good hygiene practices to limit the spread of coronavirus and this means ensuring strict handwashing protocols are in place.
On your question about hygiene, schools have been advised that hard surfaces in classrooms, such as door handles, keyboards and desks should be regularly disinfected. Handwashing and appropriate cleaning are top priorities at our school sites. The Department of Education has contracts established for the supply of washroom products and this includes soap which is supplied in all bathrooms. The COVID-19 Coordination Unit has been set up within the Department of Education and has responsibility for ensuring all schools have access to essential supplies such as soap and hand sanitiser. Support is being provided to schools to ensure that orders and adequate supplies are in place. There is daily monitoring occurring, as you would appreciate. Yesterday there were eight issues relating to soap or hand sanitiser products and all of those issues were resolved.
The department is also exploring avenues to access more product and this includes a discussion with a local business, not normally in the production of hand sanitiser, another product, who has offered to dedicate a proportion of their production time to manufacturing hand sanitiser to a World Health Organisation standard. These discussions are in the early stages but is a good example of the innovation occurring to ensure essential supplies can be maintained and adaption by industry. I welcome that and thank all our businesses and the one I mentioned, which I will not name as yet, for thinking about how they can support our community at this very difficult time.
Advice from Public Health is that the most effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is by washing hands with soap and water. Alcohol-based sanitisers are not as effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 as washing hands with soap and water, and that is being repeated within our schools. Schools are being encouraged to promote good hand and respiratory hygiene and they have been provided with information to distribute to parents and the school community. The department continues to be guided by Public Health on the very best preventative measures.
The appropriate cleaning of school sites is a top priority. Today, schools are being told to ramp-up cleaning and the department has relief cleaners who can be utilised as needed. Schools have been advised to follow the Australian Government Department of Health advice to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The department has also met with representatives of United Voice to discuss requirements. I thank them for the very good discussions -
Ms O'Byrne - United Workers Union. They changed last year.
Mr ROCKLIFF - Good point, United Workers Union. Notwithstanding the name change, I thank them for the very good collaborative arrangements that are in place with the Department of Education. I thank their members and their union representatives who have agreed to send out further advice to cleaners this morning about prioritising the cleaning and disinfecting of hard surfaces. It is terrific to see the great collaboration across all school sites and sectors and key stakeholders within our school communities. That includes the United Workers Union as well.
There is very good communication between sectors of education. Yesterday was an opportunity where I could lead a discussion with the key representatives of the independent schools, Catholic schools and our public schools, led by our Secretary, Tim Bullard. They were all very collaborative discussions. We are sharing ideas and further ideas on how we can also utilise existing resources within our school communities to ensure that we have the most consistent messaging as well.
I recognise that as Minister for Education and Training, I am responsible for all three sectors of education, albeit Independents and Catholics have their own governance arrangements. They are looking to their minister for Education and our public school administration for guidance in this respect. We want to ensure that irrespective of sector, that there is a consistent approach across those sectors when it comes to all matters relating to the very challenging time at this moment.
The message I send to all our staff within all our schools right across Tasmania is a humble thank you.
Members - Hear, hear.
Mr ROCKLIFF - This is a very challenging time for all our staff and there is an increased anxiety amongst our school communities. I am in regular contact with our school communities and direct contact with teachers, who are reflecting some of these challenges. We always thank our educators, our support staff and our school leaders in good times for the work they do, but these are unique times and very challenging circumstance and my heartfelt thanks for the work they are doing.