Going back to school while struggling with the bushfires and poor air quality

Going back to school while struggling with the bushfires and poor air quality

With only a couple of days before children around the country are going back to school, there is a general doubt on how communities and schools that were heavily affected by the recent bushfires will cope with the new year.  

The Federal Minister for Education Dan Tehan, said childcare centres, preschools, schools and universities are important community touchpoints that are helping families and children get back on their feet after the bushfires. He said that the government is providing resources for families that will struggle during the upcoming year with resources to attend childcare, schools, and universities. Funds for all are now available through the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment, Child Care Subsidy, Community Child Care Fund for bushfire-affected areas, and uni scholarships, among others.  

In the meantime, the NSW Department of Education is confident that schools in fire-affected areas will be ready for students to return to when the new school year begins. Their challenge will be to finalise the assessment of 178 schools, including damaged facilities and hazardous materials that may represent a risk to students and staff. Most of them might need high-level cleaning, new playgrounds and fencing. According to the NSW Minister for Education Sarah Mitchell, “the work will be a mammoth task, with the repair bill sitting at approximately $20 million”, acknowledging that schools will play an important role in the recovery from these fires.

On the other hand, the ACT government has declared a state of alert due to the heavy smoke coming and going and bushfires in the area, while, according to The Canberra Times, the ACT education directorate is scrambling to figure out how best to manage potential air quality issues when students return to class in early February.

School children crossing the road safely at the cross walk. Australia

However, the main concern is the post-traumatic stress that these children and adolescents may be experiencing. The federal and state governments are focusing on young people’s mental health because these bushfires will affect communities long after the flames are extinguished. The Federal Government will provide an additional $8 million for mental health support through Beyond Blue to fund an extra 25 Beyond Blue liaison officers and supporting clinicians to work with local schools and early childhood services in bushfire-affected communities.

If the situation remains as it is now, everything will be ready for students to go back to school, with contingency measures in place to face the weather and air condition challenges. There are many lessons learnt from the crisis, many of which go beyond remaining safe, evacuation plans, and contingencies. Environmental awareness, animal protection, local heroes and solidarity are all part of the bushfire recovery efforts. According to The Canberra Times, Canberra schools are helping South Coast kids affected by the bushfires by collecting donations of school supplies to help ease the back-to-school rush. More than 300 backpacks filled with school supplies will be sent to South Coast kids affected by the devastating bushfires.

For up to date information on NSW school safety visit: https://education.nsw.gov.au/public-schools/school-safety.

To follow up on the State of Alert in the ACT visit: https://esa.act.gov.au/.

Public schools go back in NSW on Tuesday 29 January, and in the ACT on Monday 4 February.  

Angela Cadena

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