‘We’re running out of soap’: Teachers say cleaning at 'bare minimum' as schools stay open

Penny Burfitt
Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer
Teachers say social distancing is 'impossible' in schools. Photo: Getty Images

As schools are kept open amid the coronavirus pandemic in Australia, public school teachers are reporting extreme frustration over ‘below standard’ cleaning practices and dwindling sanitisation supplies as they attempt to maintain a healthy environment in line with the government’s COVID-19 protective measures.

Melissa* is a public primary school teacher on Sydney’s Lower North Shore, who describes the situation as ‘shocking’.

It’s really bad,” Melissa says. “For many of us, we just don’t have hand sanitiser to use. We’re running out of soap so kids can’t wash their hands.”

Following Sunday evening’s announcement that schools would be kept open, teachers tell Yahoo Lifestyle that a sense of frustration and extreme anxiety has settled over staff.

At the top of their concerns is what they have all labelled the ‘impossible’ task of implementing social distancing, and for some schools, even having access to adequate cleaning and supplies.

Hand sanitiser is not a chemical typically allowed in public schools given its alcohol content and flammability, meaning many teachers are supplying it themselves, or relying on parents to donate.

Complaints have been submitted, and orders placed, but teachers are left on backorder and operating with worryingly low quantities.

Teachers at public schools in Sydney’s Inner West report the same problem and Melissa says other teachers in Sydney’s North West, and even in Canberra, are at their wits’ end.

Nightly cleaning ‘bare minimum’

Teachers say a basic vacuum is all many of them can expect. Photo: Getty Images

Also of serious concern to teaching staff is the daily cleaning of classrooms, which they describe as the ‘bare minimum’, and which has not been changed since the pandemic broke out.

One teacher reported finding a days-old sandwich in an area supposed to be cleaned and sanitised nightly, sparking concern that communal areas are not even being touched.

Sarah* is a primary school teacher in Sydney’s Inner West and she says sanitisation efforts on a department level are non-existent.

“Talk about extra cleaning precautions is all BS, there isn’t at all,” she says.

“We haven’t been supplied with anything. People have run out of hand sanitizer… I have soap but that's just because people have brought it.”

She says there has been no extra cleaning done by cleaners, and that no extra materials have been provided, leaving teachers to clean their own classrooms, often using supplies they have sourced, or that have been donated by parents.

“We haven’t actually been given any antibacterial hand soap or anything… nothing has changed in this whole time.

“The cleaners empty bins and vacuum. That’s it.”

Melissa says her school faces the same problem.

“We have two cleaner to clean forty-something classrooms and they’re expected to spend like two minutes per classroom,” she reports, adding her own school had reports of a cleaner foregoing any cleaning product and using just water in recent weeks.

“It’s shining a really ugly light on the fact that public schools are getting the bare minimum of cleaning,” she says.

“In good faith, people are sending their children to school thinking we’re keeping it clean and it’s all up to code and they have access to all these things but we don’t.

“It’s just shocking.”

Social distancing ‘impossible’

Teachers say enforcing social distancing in schools can feel 'futile'. Photo: Getty Images

Catholic high school teacher Michael, who works in Sydney’s western suburbs says that while Catholic schools are lucky enough to have access to adequate cleaning supplies when it comes to social distancing, it’s another story.

“[Among teachers] there’s a prevailing sense that we’re potentially being exposed to the virus,” he says.

“We’re interacting with anywhere between 500 to 1000 people on a daily basis. It just goes against the whole social distancing precautions being encouraged by the federal and state governments.”

While he believes his school and community have rallied together in an inspiring way, and that the school is doing their best to support teachers, the situation remains tense.

He says in a school of over 1000 students with just two open learning centres, implementing social distancing – even as parents pull kids out voluntarily – is not possible.

“In reality, if three-quarters of your class are still coming to school, and you’re trying to implement a 1.5-meter radius it is rather impractical and it’s not really possible,” he says.

“We can sanitise hands and wash hands and encourage hygiene practices all we want, but when you have three kids sneezing and coughing in rooms that aren’t [properly] ventilated it does seem futile at times.”

Sarah agrees, saying calls for social distancing in schools is ‘a joke’.

“It’s impossible,” she says. “We have 30 students in a little classroom where they cannot physically sit at distance from each other.”

Toll on personal lives

When it comes to their personal lives, the impacts are hard to measure.

Michael says he feels quite conflicted and doesn’t feel comfortable going to work.

Melissa says she feels that they were thrust into an impossible situation.

“It feels like we weren’t really given the choice between choosing between our careers and looking after our family members, we were just expected to go ahead,” she says.

All agree that teachers are more than happy to have children of essential medical and emergency workers attend school if necessary, and all have already set up, or begun to set up, online learning to support kids at home.

The public school teachers have reported a significant drop in attendance since Sunday night’s press conference, which gives them some hope, and Sarah says she feels lucky that she has a level of job security compared with many other professions.

Overall, however, teachers believe the current measures in place are not up to the task, and are sceptical of the story being told about safety at schools.

“The hygiene standards at the school are not working,” Melissa says.

“What the Prime Minister is telling everyone at the moment is not true of what's going on in schools.”

NSW Education Department has been contacted for comment.

*Names have been changed for privacy.

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