Australian students return to school, Qantas plans return to skies

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Children in Australia’s most populated state will return to school full-time next week, a major step towards normalising public life since the coronavirus pandemic, as Qantas Airways detailed new safety measures for the resumption of flights.

The directive from New South Wales (NSW) Premier Gladys Berejiklian lifts childcare responsibilities for the parents and carers of around 800,000 children in public schools as Australia seeks to stem a surge in unemployment and restart the economy.

The Reserve Bank of Australia warned on Tuesday the country is facing a “significant” and “unprecedented” economic contraction, though massive fiscal and monetary policy stimulus would help cushion the blow. Minutes of the RBA’s meeting earlier this month showed the baseline case was for gross domestic product to fall by 10% in the first half and 6% for all of 2020.

Australia’s states and territories are beginning to allow more public activity under a three-step federal government plan to end two months of shutdowns that officials have credited with keeping the country’s exposure to the pandemic relatively low.

“During the period of time when children were learning from home we made sure we had everything in place to prepare our schools for a COVID-save environment,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney. “From now on, we don’t ever want to see a situation where all schools are closed.”

Still, Berejiklian cautioned that it was almost certain individual schools would need to close temporarily in the future to prevent the spread of fresh outbreaks, despite plans to ramp up cleaning and observe social distancing practices.

The decision caught the state’s teachers union by surprise, with Teachers Federation President Angelo Gavrielatos saying it “caused a lot of concern, frustration and anger among teachers and principals.”

“They turned themselves inside out, not once, not twice, but repeatedly, trying to come to terms with this crisis and fulfilling their professional and social and moral responsibilities,” Gavrielatos told Australian Broadcasting Corp television.

“Schools are complex places,” he added. “It’s not like turning a tap on and off.”

Public schools educate the bulk of students in NSW. Private schools have adopted differing timetables during the crisis, with some following the state guidelines while others moved more quickly to online learning.

In neighbouring Victoria, the resumption of school was continuing on a staggered basis, with full-time lessons for all pupils not due to resume until early next month.

New South Wales accounts for more than 40% of Australia’s 7,060 confirmed COVID-19 infections, and almost half the 99 deaths nationally.

Qantas Airways Ltd, meanwhile, said it could restart 40-50% of its domestic capacity in July if states relax border controls, and expects to offer low and flexible fares without social distancing measures to stimulate travel demand.

The airline will introduce measures on board from June 12 such as providing masks and cleaning wipes to ensure safe travel and give passengers peace of mind during the pandemic, but will not leave middle seats empty.

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