opinion

'As an Australian teacher, right now I believe our most important job is keeping kids calm.'

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. The feature image used is a stock photo.

There’s a lot the government could have said to make me feel better about walking into work on Monday morning.

They could have acknowledged that social distancing is impossible in a school scenario, but that the cancellations of assemblies, before/after school groups and sporting were a huge step towards preventing the spread of COVID-19.

They could have reassured teachers who are immunocompromised or aged 60 plus that there will be additional sick leave and no questions asked if they need to take time off work to protect themselves. They could have acknowledged that for Australian teachers, the simple act of doing their job is a little frightening at the moment.

Watch: Mamamia’s Claire Murphy breaks down your most asked questions about COVID-19. Post continues below. 

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But these things weren’t meaningfully addressed in the sweeping email from Mark Scott (Secretary, Department of Education) that landed in NSW public teacher inboxes on Sunday night. Rather, Scott just urged the use of the very same hygiene measures I’ve implemented for 10 years of being surrounded by coughing, sneezing children during work hours.

He continued: “Your work is on display to the whole community and how you respond will affect people way beyond your classroom door. While many are panicking, I ask you to remain calm”.

On you go, chin up, it’s your job to keep the peace, was the subtext.

I try not to complain about the lack of teacher recognition in this country, especially given our decent salary and the lifestyle options that school holidays afford. But when office workers are gradually being moved to the safety of their own homes, the advice for teachers to continue entering environments traditionally rife with germs (do teenagers ever wash their hands? Who knows?), sounded particularly harsh.

And yet, despite the somewhat superficial advice given to us educators, I do believe schools should be open.

For months now, I have been conscious of high anxiety amongst my students. Some had bushfires come close to their homes in December, others were afraid to leave the house for the smoke through January, and by the time Term 1 started, many were in two-week quarantine after visiting China for the school holidays, or had family in lockdown in Wuhan.

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Listen: The Quicky looks at how COVID-19 is being brought under control in China. Post continues below. 

Through it all, I’ve had to field dark and scary questions from teenagers who are fed a media diet of fear and doom, and who are gradually starting to believe the world really is coming to an end. In many ways, the last thing these kids need is to be at a loose end, at home (or worse, out and about in public places), struggling to keep up with schoolwork in what will almost certainly be a less-than-ideal online learning situation.

In my classroom, I remind the Year 7’s to keep their hands to themselves. Where possible, I use digital resources instead of books and handouts. I keep my distance (although my classroom is not big enough for me to ever be 1.5m away from any students), but still need to touch laptops and worksheets in order to give the kids feedback and do my job properly. I sanitise my hands frequently, washing them with hot water and soap whenever I get a chance to get to the bathroom – which is not often, but always before I eat or snack.

My Year 11’s joke that the bottle of Dettol hand sanitiser, which I snagged before all the chemists sold out, “must be worth quite a lot now”. Many of my students wear masks, and at the beginning of each lesson, the air is thick with the smell of scented alcohol rubs. If a child is sneezing or coughing (something that my classroom is now miraculously devoid of), we can send them straight to sickbay to be isolated and sent home.

In many ways, ironically, my job is less of a biohazard than the usual “Oh your parents had to work today?” cases of sniffling students sitting in every class all year round.

This is not to say I feel entirely comfortable being asked to go to work in a time like this. I am young and healthy, but I’m not foolhardy. I’ve made a ritual out of disinfecting my phone, showering and doing yoga when I get home, taking my vitamins and getting more sleep than I usually allow myself. I’ve had my moments of panic and fear and frustration.

But I also strongly believe that following government advice is the best thing for our country at this time. And I feel a sense of achievement, having maintained normality in the lives of scared young people, even if only for today.

Read more on COVID-19

The Australian Government Department of Health advises that the only people who will be tested for COVID-19 are those with symptoms who have either returned from overseas in the past 14 days or been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case in the past 14 days. 

If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000. 

To keep up to date with the latest information, please visit the Department of Health website.

Feature Image: Getty. 

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