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(Part 7)


March 20, 2020

The government of New South Wales, Australia, and the Catholic leadership have both opposed the closing of schools. This is a refreshing break from the panic, and even hysteria, of the world in instituting lockdowns and effectively shutting down society. As I have said, we must consider that the cure could be worse than the disease.

We are already seeing the economic impact of lockdowns. Daily wage earners are not earning. Businesses are shutting down. Economic activity is grinding to a halt. Life is on hold. When these happen, it can become devastating. What could come next? There can be riots, break-ins to stores and homes, robberies, or worse. There would be societal chaos.

We of course should be prudent and cautious. Perhaps if there is really a need to lock down, then let that be done. But let us not go overboard. Let us look to the right balance and timing.

This is especially the case with our Catholic Church. Our bishops should not be quick to cancel Masses and lock down churches. They should not just look to the secular wisdom of the world but look to the inscrutable wisdom of God. Even Slovakia, a Central European country with a population of 5.4 million, of which 75% are Catholic, with only 124 COVID-19 infections and no deaths, has cancelled all Masses, liturgies and ecclesial services. This makes no sense to me.

In a time of mass hysteria, let there be no hysteria as to Masses. In a time of mass illnesses, let us look to the healing qualities of the Mass. In a time of shut downs, let our churches be opened up.

God bless and protect you all.

Archbishop steps in to stop Catholic school closures across NSW

The country's most senior archbishop has blocked a plan by the state's 11 Catholic dioceses to defy government policy and close their schools.

The three school sectors' hard-won consensus to keep NSW schools open was on the verge of collapse before Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Education Minister Dan Tehan rang Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher on Wednesday to ask him to intervene.

But the federal government is "very disappointed" in the growing number of independent schools that have bowed to intense parental pressure and shut down campuses.

Mr Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian both insisted on Wednesday that schools should remain open for the "foreseeable future", saying a prolonged, premature closure was unlikely to stop the spread of COVID-19 and could make it worse, while devastating the economy.

There is a view among senior education officials that if major schools or systems close,the pressure to shut down the public system would be overwhelming.

On Wednesday, Newington College’s senior campus shut for 24 hours after a staff member had contact with someone who tested positive.

The Sydney diocese went public with a plea for all schools to close on Tuesday, but several senior sources told the Herald that Catholic Schools NSW, which represents the education directors of 11 dioceses, was at the same time approaching the state government about a total shutdown of its schools.

The federal ministers contacted the bishop on Wednesday morning. Soon afterwards, Bishop Fisher wrote to NSW Catholic School bosses backing the governments’ stance, and saying the federal ministers had been “very disappointed” by decisions by some of the non-Catholic independent schools to pre-emptively close.

“And, by implication, [disappointed] with some of the actions or public statements of some in our own sector,” he wrote in a letter obtained by the Herald. “The government asks us to work together, collectively to seek the best medical advice, to help preserve calm, and to help it in its best efforts to address this public health emergency.

“It is the view of bishops presently here in Sydney for a meeting of the permanent committee that we should notbreak ranks with our Commonwealth and state governments and their chief medical officers on this.”

In a press conference after his call to Bishop Fisher, Mr Morrison warned the impact of school closures on the economy and productivity would be severe.“What do I mean by severe? Tens of thousands of jobs could be lost, if not more,” he said.

Some independent schools are breaking ranks, although there are still fewer in NSW than Victoria. On Wednesday, Sydney school Kambala joined them by announcing it would bring kindergarten to year 10 fully online from Monday, closing its physical campus.

Moriah College in Queens Park will also put its lessons online, as will Presbyterian Ladies College in Croydon for all students except year 12.

Ms Berejiklian rebuked those schools. “We would prefer that everybody is absolutely on the same page when it comes to all the stakeholders in education,” she said. Most were, although “there are some, very few, that do not. But there is no rationale for closing down schools.”

Most independent school heads are sticking to government advice despite intense parental pressure. Independent and Catholic schools run their own operations, but they receive 80 per cent of their public funding from the federal government.

In a long email to parents, Queenwood head Elizabeth Stone said there was no evidence a closure would stop the spread of COVID-19 unless it was accompanied by a full social lockdown, which might be considered in coming months.

Any such lockdown would not be sustainable for six months, which is the predicted length of the first wave of infections.

“Half measures could increase the risk to the public while full measures can only be sustained for a short time – and therefore should be deployed when it will make the greatest difference,”Ms Stone wrote. “Is now that time? I do not believe so.”

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Closing schools and putting classes online sounds easy, but it brings new problems

As the debate rages over school closures – with anxious parents and some healthcare workers calling for them to be shut, and the government saying they should be kept open - many are calling for classes to go online.

Some private schools are already swapping their physical campuses for virtual ones, and two Catholic systems in Sydney want to follow. Putting classes online now sounds like an easy solution to a difficult dilemma. But it brings another set of problems.

There is no question that online and remote learning will be important during this crisis. Some form of closure is considered by many to be inevitable as the peak of infections approaches. The more optimistic believe schools are unlikely to reopen after the Easter holidays.

But health experts are adamant that schools do not need to close yet, and closing them prematurely could aid the spread of the disease. And they say if campuses are shut down early because of parental pressure rather than expert advice, they could be closed for six months.

While high-fee private schools can invest in sophisticated online learning platforms to keep teaching over that time, many less well-off students would not be able to learn from home because they cannot access a computer, and do not have internet access.

A principal told the Herald that some of his year 11 and 12 students' only personal device was their mobile phone, and their only connection to the internet was via their mobile data. "It's a major equity issue," said another deputy principal.

One education official said the more remarked-upon perks offered by private schools - pools, gyms, orchestra pits - would pale in comparison with the advantages access to high-quality technology will give their students over those without.

Disadvantaged students will face other problems, too. Many come from families that speak little English, so their parents will struggle to help them with their work.

Others are from families with little education - some children arrive at school having never seen a book - so they too can count on little support. Self-motivated students, or those whose families are educated or value education, would be heavily advantaged over those that need a nudge.

Some students will have no supervision, because their parents must work. Or they will be left with grandparents, who are most vulnerable to COVID-19. Or they will be left alone.

Many students access key services through school. Some are fed there, or go there to access important health services such as psychologists. School provides stability, care and support for many kids who desperately need those things.

All these issues are front of mind for those grappling with the question of whether to put classes online. Private school principals are aware, too, that if they all go online before the government says it's necessary, the pressure on the public system to follow will be immense.

Protracted online learning will also be a challenge for parents of children in early primary school, when kids are still learning to read.

Continuing their learning will require heavy parental involvement, which will be difficult if parents also need to work. Some parents might make terrific teachers, others will make crotchety, frustrated ones, especially as the months tick on.

There are potential child protection issues, too. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has warned there is a "dark tunnel" ahead.

Psychologists worry that parents and students alike will be lonely, bored and worried. Social media will help connect us, but it has its own dangers. Depression and anxiety will make us irritable. Students will suffer those hardships, and many will also bear the brunt of them.

Some have suggested a hybrid model, in which families would have a choice between keeping kids home and learning remotely. But running remote and face-to-face lessons simultaneously is resource intensive and logistically difficult, particularly for the public system.

"Staff can most certainly place work on our platforms, but they cannot both teach classes and teach remotely simultaneously, as this would be logistically impossible," said St Andrew's Cathedral School head John Collier in a letter to parents.

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