HUNTER families are calling for greater clarity about whether staff and students should be travelling from the Central Coast to schools in Newcastle, as the number of COVID-19 cases in Greater Sydney rises and TAFE NSW makes a partial return to remote learning.
Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp said he had received several calls from "frustrated" Hunter School of the Performing Arts (HSPA) families seeking clarity around the public health order - which allows people to leave Greater Sydney to travel to attend work or education where it is not possible to do at home - and expressing concern about the risk of transmission.
The school has students who travel long distances including from the Central Coast, which is part of Greater Sydney and where schools have reverted to remote learning.
HSPA principal Tracey Breese told families by email last Friday all students would be learning face to face on site from Tuesday.
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"The NSW Health and Department of Education have confirmed that staff and students who live on the Central Coast are expected to attend HSPA and follow the level two restrictions [which includes the recommended use of masks indoors]," she wrote.
Toronto High principal Mark McConville also told families last week the school would be open to all students including those "who reside in the Greater Sydney area (Central Coast etc)".
Hunter Sports High has asked all Central Coast students "do wear a face mask each day to conform with the lockdown in place in that LGA".
Swansea High principal Andrew Pesle told families on Monday "students from the Central Coast are expected to return to school as normal".
The Department of Education's website states that under the current public health orders, there is nothing to restrict students and staff who must attend school from moving between two areas with different levels of restrictions. It states students and staff should reduce travelling to areas with higher levels of restrictions.
However a department spokesman told the Newcastle Herald that students and teachers living in Greater Sydney were "encouraged to stay at home".
"However, schools remain open for those who need it and no student will be turned away," he said.
"Students and staff who must attend school can move between two areas with different levels of restrictions.
"Over the weekend, the NSW Government updated its advice to recommend that essential workers travelling to and from Greater Sydney areas to regional areas of the state undergo regular testing for COVID-19, even if they do not have symptoms.
"Where testing is undertaken without symptoms, you are not required to isolate until you receive your results.
"Schools in regional NSW have been advised to implement strong COVID-19 safety measures to further reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19.
"The department is working with NSW Health to monitor the evolving situation and will not hesitate to update its advice if needed."
Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp said the state government's public health orders needed to be "tightened up" to remove any ambiguity.
"It needs to be made explicitly clear what is and isn't allowed," he said.
"Kids can't play sport with kids from the Central Coast, we've had theatre cancelled and cultural interactions cancelled, we've got TAFE doing [teaching] remotely, yet we have schools doing the opposite.
"It needs to be tightened up quite a lot and made a lot clearer.
"We do need to be following the health advice, but unfortunately when you have different rules for different parts of the state, you end up with inconsistencies."
He said the use of terms such as recommended, suggested and encouraged was "problematic, because it doesn't clarify anything and it makes parents even more concerned".
"We need to stop with just making recommendations which aren't backed up or binding and we need it clear in the public health order, which is binding," he said.
"That's the difference, isn't it... advice that people perhaps should stay at home, then saying they can come and then they've got to get tested every seven days, it's just not clear.
"You can recommend anything pretty much, but unless it's in the health order then it's not enforceable, is it.
"People are happy to follow the rules but there's got to be rules [to follow]."
He said many workers including police officers and nurses live on the Central Coast and travel to the Hunter for work, as is allowed under the orders.
He said the number of cases in Greater Sydney reported this week would likely determine if the government banned travel between the two areas.
"I'm sure they'll reach a point where that does happen if we continue having numbers go up like this in Sydney," he said.
"We need a line to be drawn at some stage and it needs to be very clear in the public health order."
TAFE NSW campuses outside Greater Sydney remain open and are providing "alternative training options" to any students who commute from Greater Sydney.
Where this cannot be offered, teachers are rescheduling delivery for affected students.
The University of Newcastle has advised anyone who has been in Greater Sydney since June 21 must not attend class or work on campus.
It has asked staff to be prepared to switch to "study from home" mode next week for semester two.
NSW Teachers Federation senior vice president Amber Flohm said advice from the department, NSW Health and Premier Gladys Berejiklian was "not consistent and this places teachers in a difficult position having to make decisions about their work and their own children on a daily basis".
She said the federation was telling teachers to put their own health and safety first.
"What we seek for all our teachers is clear and consistent advice," she said.
"We have been raising with the Department of Education since last week the inconsistencies between messages we are hearing from NSW Health around mobility of the population and the requirement for teachers to travel from Greater Sydney into regional areas.
"We are having difficulty reconciling that position, it is inconsistent across education settings between schools and TAFE."
She said advice about teachers who travel outside Greater Sydney being tested every seven days "continues to be inconsistent with other messages from other parts of Greater Sydney [about] working in regional areas".
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