Council: raising parent voices on returning to school

2021 COVID Lockdown 

Council takes its role as the parent voice on public education seriously.  

Here’s what we have heard about Returning to School, and what has happened when your voices have been raised.

During ACT’s current lockdown and period of At-Home Learning, we have sought parent views and experiences from many different places. We’ve listened to parents via our member P&Cs and directly. And we’ve been very grateful to have regular opportunities to voice what we have heard from parents – your views and needs – to decision makers in government including the Minister for Education and senior staff at the Education Directorate (EDU).  

Here’s what we have heard about Returning to School, and what has happened when your voices have been raised. 

Returning to School

Parents are caught between, on one hand, wanting students to return to school as soon as possible, because home learning is difficult and they're worried about lost learning or lost income, and on the other hand, concern about the risk of their kids – and family – getting sick. Many parents are fearful of COVID infections spreading through their school. 

You told us – when to return 

There is a wide variety of views from parents and school communities about the return to school – from those who want to send their children back now, to parents not prepared to send their children until everyone (including students) are vaccinated. There is no consensus view. 

To feel comfortable returning to school, parents most commonly tell us they need: 

  • no cases/community transition; all cases have known origin 
  • high vaccination rates (70 or 80%) including kids 12 years plus 
  • advertised rates of teacher vaccination 
  • students vaccinated 
  • mask wearing (high school and college) - note some not in favour in primary due to raising anxiety 
  • ventilation and HEPA filters, door and windows open 
  • clear, enforced policies for unwell kids not to be at school, isolated if unwell and sent home 
  • excellent cleaning processes in schools 
  • handwashing facilities 
  • tai s captures 0I52FCHNjoU unsplashconfidence in density-reducing and segregation measures (especially in large schools) such as 
    • staggered recess and lunch breaks 
    • drop off/pick up procedures 
    • no split classes, assemblies, excursions 
    • outdoor classes 
  • clear communication about:  
    • the process and policies that will be followed if a COVID case is found at the school.   
    • clear messaging to families of requirements of return to school after contact 
    • Processes relating to sick children at school 
    • general COVID-safe practices employed in the school environment 
    • culturally appropriate support and messaging for families who speak a language other than English 

Parents want some flexibility. Some will wish to continue to keep their kids home, especially if they have vulnerabilities. 

 Parents also asked for a clear road map on returning to school: 

  • Timeframes for transitions (the more lead time the better) 
  • Clear and consistent messaging, factual and evidence based but wrapped around with a supportive approach (less sterile) 
  • Communicate the basis and health advice on which the decisions are being made. 

We responded 

Early in September, Council held a special Representative Input Session in collaboration with EDU where one representative from each ACT public school was invited to attend to hear the current considerations about the return to school and give to feedback from themselves and parents at their school (as they were able). In this way, parent voices were heard directly. We are also very grateful to Yvette Berry, ACT Education Minister, and Katy Haire, the Education Directorate's Director-General, who attended the latter part of the meeting to hear the results of those discussions and summaries of parent input. We are confident that, while Health Directives will shape the return to school, parents’ views are understood and may guide what a return to school looks like.  

We are continuing to advocate for parents on the need for clear communication that will increase parent confidence such as the safety measures in place – cleaning, ventilation, segregation of parts of the school, plans for absences and the details of the mechanism of return to school. 

This is happening 

We are aware that since Tuesday’s (September 14) announcements of return to school outline, EDU are working closely with Health to build detailed plans for the return of college, and other schools will follow.  They are working with principals to make sure plans are practical and achievable.  We continue to be informed by EDU and to press them for clear and specific information to be relayed to all parents so that they better understand why decision are made and how the return will work for their family.  The evolving nature of the situation means that sometimes communication to parents is not as fast as parents might like. Please be patient, as we can see many staff working very long hours to create appropriate plans and processes and then to keep parents informed of these. 

Information on safety measures – cleaning, ventilation, absences and so on is now included in EDU’s FAQ for families.  We also know that each school already has a dedicated space for isolating students who become unwell at school. 

You told us – how to return 

The details of returning to school, especially if phased, are important. It’s a really difficult situation and there is no solution that will make everyone happy. Here’s what parents say. 

  • Parents are reassured by and want to follow health advice. Health, hygiene and wellbeing are paramount. 
  • Focus on wellbeing, allowing time for children to settle children emotionally. Focus on cohesion, social connections, outdoor activity, rather than assessment. Maybe make A-E reporting opt in. 
  • Access to support will be important - psychologists, youth workers, mental health services, and culturally appropriate. A quick mental health check for all has been requested. 
  • Really clear communication about changes to day to day operations - consistent messages at all schools, staff and parents. Teachers to talk to kids in age appropriate ways to normalise new ways. 
  • As much warning as possible so people can get organised, kids can prepare (some need transition, social stories). Clear timeframe for transitions. 
  • As fast as possible, not slow trickle.  
  • If mask wearing is required, make it fun and change timetables to increase compliance, make it more accepted and more bearable for students; ask students how they feel and what would help. School must be able to provide masks. Recognise some students can’t wear masks and shouldn’t be bullied for this. 
  • If phased, most think smallest kids need to go back first, along with year 11 & 12 (practical courses first). Also transition years – 6 and 10. 
  • If young people/families are going to miss out on important events like formals and graduations (but more than this), perhaps resource other special milestone activities like year-books, online events. 

We responded

Breakout sessions focusing on different school levels were held at our Representative Input Session.  We are very grateful for the deep and thoughtful discussions that occurred between parent representatives in these sessions which were listened to directly by EDU staff. We continue to reiterate this feedback. 

This is happening 

Plans are being made for the return to school and more parent consultation is being conducted by EDU via surveys which will broaden then deep discussions held at our Representative Input Session. 

You told us – after school's returned 

Parents commonly have these concerns about what happens once the kids are back that school: 

  • last time parents felt alienated “like they had the plague” - can it be handled more sensitively this time? 
  • HelpingHandSM 1if parents can’t come on site and we have to drop at the school gate - some younger kids will be unsettled 
  • traffic problems with kiss and drop - need clear explanation/signage before school returns 
  • if we are strong on excluding kids with symptoms, how will kids with long-term coughs/many colds be supported to learn? Can at home learning continue? Will we be pressured about absences? Need clear policies and procedures that are well communicated and enforced. 
  • Worried about safety on public transport. 
  • Want to know clear process of what happens if there is a case in the school 
  • Don’t want to yo-yo in and out of open/closed schools. 

We're responding 

We’ve collated parents concern about the how things work when we are back at school and sent them to the relevant staff at EDU. 

We have asked for very clear processes about pick up and drop off (including kids and drop), can we have different processes for kids eg with anxiety and complex needs so they can have a positive experience of transitioning back to school.  We have also asked for opportunities for supported transitions before school returns for students who need longer to adjust. 

What’s happening 

Answers to many parent questions are now in the FAQ on the EDU website


See also - How Council is raising parent voices on At-Home Learning.