Parents in NSW threatened with court action for keeping children home from school

Parents in New South Wales have been threatened with court action for keeping their children home from school because of concerns about catching Covid-19.

Classes in NSW will resume next week after the release of the state government’s return to school plan on Sunday.

While the government said the plan – which includes the use of rapid antigen tests and a rollout of about 20,000 air purifiers across the state – means students can go back to classes safely, some parents remain sceptical.

On Monday, the Guardian reported that a group of concerned parents plan to file legal action against the Department of Education over its refusal to grant them permission to keep their children at home because of fears about contracting the virus.

Despite premier Dominic Perrottet insisting on Tuesday that it would be “ridiculous” to fine parents who keep children out of school, the Guardian has confirmed that the education department has denied numerous attempts by parents to seek exemptions for their children throughout the pandemic.

In correspondence seen by the Guardian, Sterre Siegenbeek van Heukelom, a mother from the Illawarra region of NSW, was last year denied leave to keep her son home from school on the basis that she, not her child, was classified as being vulnerable to the virus.

The correspondence – which is similar in tone to other advice given to parents – stated that advice from NSW Health was that there is “limited risk” in students bringing Covid from school into the home.

It stated that exemptions would only be granted in cases where a medical practitioner “explicitly advises” the student should not attend classes.

Despite later providing medical advice from her doctor, Siegenbeek van Heukelom’s requests for an exemption have continued to be denied.

“In summary, your son is not ill, but lives with someone who is at increased risk,” one letter from the department to Siegenbeek van Heukelom stated.

“Learning from home for your son can only be supported if clear and explicit medical advice stating that he should not attend school face to face is received.”

Siegenbeek van Heukelom, who has health conditions which placed her in the 1b category during the vaccine rollout, said it was ironic that NSW Health advice about avoiding indoor gatherings did not apply to school settings.

“With the transmission and rate of the virus going around in the community it doesn’t feel safe for me as someone who is vulnerable to the virus, and NSW agrees with me that enclosed spaces with many people not being able to socially distance and not being able to wear masks is not ideal,” she said.

The government has said that the social, educational and mental health benefits for students attending classes far outweigh the health risks associated with the virus, but the premier has repeatedly said he understands the anxiety facing some parents.

Perrottet on Tuesday insisted that parents wouldn’t be punished for keeping children at home during the Omicron wave due to existing health concerns.

“When we talk about parents being concerned [and] anxious, particularly in circumstances where their children may have underlying health conditions, we’re certainly not going to be fining parents,” he said.

But parents have been threatened with legal action. In a letter sent by a principal to a mother with a pre-existing health condition who kept her child away from school last year, the threat of court action was raised because of “unsatisfactory attendance”.

“I am required to make an application to the home school liaison program … for consideration of further action,” the letter stated.

“An attendance officer may be allocated to work with you and the school to develop an attendance improvement program.

“If you do not meaningfully engage with the attendance improvement program, or there is no improvement in [your son’s] attendance … the Department of Education and Communities may consider further action such as an application to the children’s court for compulsory schooling orders.”

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In a statement, the Department of Education did not respond directly to questions about whether parents could be punished for keeping their children at home once term resumes due to a fear of contracting Covid.

Instead a spokesperson said regular attendance at school for all students was “essential to learning and wellbeing”, and cases in which parents were concerned about their child’s attendance would be “managed collaboratively in partnership between schools and parents”.

“When schools are open, all students should be at school unless they are unwell; or they have a medical certificate which states that they are unable to return to school due to an ongoing medical condition,” a spokesperson said.

“These students can be supported to learn from home provided a valid medical certificate is supplied.

“There are a range of options available if students are prevented from attending school, including the sick or general leave and exemptions from attendance under Section 25 of the Education Act 1990. We always act reasonably when considering leave explanations and exemption applications and will continue to do so.”


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