Through COVID, hundreds of families across regional and remote Australia commence each school term with a great sense of trepidation, not knowing whether the child they are sending to boarding school or university will be caught on the wrong side of a border due to a sudden state lockdown.
This shouldn't be the case. This situation could have been resolved a year ago when it was first recognised that a consistent set of cross-border rules needed to be agreed by National Cabinet to give families certainty during times of what has become the inevitable border closures due to COVID.
Just a week ago, students in Victoria returned to school. Many travelled from remote parts of NSW. Less than a week later the state went into lockdown, originally for five days but then extended. The border was closed, NSW based parents can't collect their children and there are no alternative options.
Some schools arranged a bus, but that too has its limitations and interpretation of its legitimacy under the cross-border rules is vague.
Families in northern NSW are on tenterhooks waiting to see if the Queensland border will again be shut separating them from their children.
Each term children travelling from western NSW into South Australia must start the process again to negotiate a return when a term coincides with a lockdown.
Sometimes quarantine is required and sometimes an exemption can be granted. Rather than learning from past experience, with each new lockdown, authorities appear to be going back to square one.
In some instances, families are getting different advice with each lockdown, even though their personal circumstances have not changed between each case.
Many of these families do not have choice of education providers. In NSW I am aware of many families that live more than 100km away from their nearest state education facility, often on poor roads that can be seasonally compromised. Some of these students are from remote indigenous communities.
The Isolated Children's Parents' Association (ICPA) have been calling for a nationally consistent approach to develop a system that combines common sense with the need to keep our communities safe. The system needs to:
- Consider the mental and physical well-being of students and families;
- Provide clear directions and processes to be implemented by schools in the case of a lockdown; and
- Allow children living in rural and regional areas to travel to and from school via the most direct route in the event of a school closure caused by a lockdown.
This national approach should have been in place last year as some inter-state borders were closed for a second time. Certainly, it should have been developed after the ICPA made a comprehensive submission in November 2020 to the government.
At the very least it should have been done before the commencement of the new school year in January 2021 when it became apparent that COVID was not over.
We can now see, until there is a sufficient level of vaccination and confidence in the community, the states will continue to rely on lockdowns as a mechanism to manage the virus in the community - as is their right.
In the meantime, our regional and remote students should not suffer additional burdens when there is a common-sense approach that can be adopted.
National Cabinet must urgently develop and agree on a national approach to give these students and families from our regional and remote areas a level of certainty.
I don't want another term to go by with families and children living in fear.
*Senator Perin Davey is NSW Senator for the Nationals based in Deniliquin and is a member of the Isolated Children's Parents' Association.
The story Stop leaving rural students in fear of border closures: Nats Senator first appeared on Farm Online.