The federal education minister, Dan Tehan, has ordered independent schools to reopen and provide in-person education to children whose parents want it in term two.
In a letter, sent to the Independent Schools Council of Australia and peak bodies in each state and territory on Thursday, Tehan stated he will use Australian Education Act powers to impose a new condition on independent schools, in effect requiring them to make classroom learning available or risk losing federal funding.
It comes as the national cabinet meets on Thursday, a further opportunity for the Morrison government to push for schools to be reopened as early as term two, which begins on Tuesday in some states.
Tehan’s order represents a shift away from online learning at home to classroom attendance, a move likely to spark tension with Victoria, which favoured early closure of schools to contain Covid-19.
Despite rising community concern the Morrison government opposed school closures all through March on the basis of medical advice, and even used the threat of withdrawing funding from independent and Catholic schools in a bid to force them to remain open.
Closures were eventually triggered by Victoria’s decision to bring forward school holidays, and the use of pupil-free days in other states to prepare for online learning. In-person attendance at New South Wales state schools dwindled to as low as 5%.
In the letter, seen by Guardian Australia, Tehan said he was aware “a small number of independent schools have chosen to stand down all physical classroom delivery and move to alternative, or online classroom delivery”.
“While I appreciate that a number of jurisdictions are moving towards this form of service delivery, I am asking schools to retain a physical classroom environment for the children of parents who may not have a choice of keeping children at home,” he said.
“These might be the children of essential front line workers such as paramedics, nurses, doctors and police officers who, in the absence of a classroom option, are forced to make the decision to stop working in our essential services.”
Tehan added that students should “not be refused physical classroom access based on their parent’s employment”.
Tehan noted his power in the act to impose conditions on schools’ funding whether he believes them to be in the public interest.
“Therefore I am advising you that I will be varying the approval of all independent approved authorities to include a condition from the commencement of term two, requiring schools to provide a physical classroom environment for the children of parents who choose to access it,” he said.
Despite the order, Tehan also recognised the need for schools to follow “the advice of the health or education authorities of the commonwealth or the state or territory in which the school is located, including any directions they may issue in regard to school shut downs”.
The condition provides an exception for schools following local health or education authorities’ direction if the authority “has acted genuinely and in good faith in discharge of its duties of care to students, employees and others”.
On Thursday the Northern Territory government announced that school attendance will be compulsory from day one of term two, 20 April.
The New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said her government was in talks with education experts about how to educate children and would use the Easter break to “consider our options about what term two for schools will look like”.
“But again it will be based on health advice and in consultation with all of our stakeholders, including of course principals and teachers and parent groups as well,” she said.
State by state guide:
Term two dates: 14 April–26 June
The first day of term two is a student-free day. Students are still expected to start from Wednesday 15 April.
Position on schools: Most students will be educated from home when term two starts to ensure physical distancing helps slow the spread of coronavirus. Free internet access and laptop will be provided for students who need them.
Onsite learning will only be available for children whose parents can’t work from home and vulnerable students without access to a suitable learning environment.
Term two dates: 27 April–3 July
Position on schools: State schools have remained open but in-person attendance fell to 5% in the first week of April. Premier Gladys Berejiklian has said to expect a further announcement about term two after the Easter break.
Term two dates: 20 April–26 June
Position on schools: Schools remained open for children of essential service workers, with pupil-free todays used to plan for online education. Announcement on term two expected on Tuesday.
Term two dates: 28 April–3 July
Position on schools: Teachers are preparing to continue delivering learning from home for their students, but parents are advised that “if you have to send your children to school, we will continue to provide a safe environment for them and support their learning”.
Term 2 dates: 28 April–3 July
Position on schools: ACT public schools will move to remote learning in term two. Most public school students will undertake their learning from home.
For parents and carers who cannot keep their children at home, due to work or additional needs, the ACT government will provide supervision at a reduced number of public school sites.
Term two dates: 27 April–3 July
Position on schools: In South Australia, the advice of the chief public health officer is that schools, preschools and early childhood services should remain open. Parents can choose to keep their children at home.
Term 2 dates: 28 April–3 July
Position on schools: From 26 March, families were encouraged to keep children at home, if they could access the online or other resources for their education to continue. A further update is expected on Thursday.
Term two dates: Begins 20 April.
Position on schools: Unless a school contacts parents directly with alternative arrangements, children are to physically attend school. Exceptions can be made for parents who have informed the school their child will be learning from home.