Schools told don't judge vulnerable parents who send children to class.
Family crisis workers have urged schools to avoid judging vulnerable parents who are not essential workers for sending their children to school, saying teachers were often unaware of the dire circumstances those families were facing.
Attendance rose across the state's public schools for the first day of term one, but most parents heeded government requests to continue lessons at home until children were told when they could return to class by their principal.
At the end of last term, about 94 per cent of students stayed home from school. Yesterday, that number dropped to 87 per cent, a difference of about 60,000 students among a total population of 800,000.
Even though parents have been asked to keep children home until a staged return begins on May 11, public schools remain open for families that need them and the Premier has repeatedly said no child will be turned away. However, some schools have been telling parents that only children of essential workers may attend.
Jodi Owen, who runs a Barnardos family support centre in Penrith, said vulnerable families have been left struggling to cope. "Individual teachers are giving advice, around 'you don't work, you're at home, your kids don't have to be at school then'," she said. "Our families are really vulnerable. There are complexities that teachers don't know about.
"They might not know there's domestic violence happening in the home."
"I get why [teachers] are fearful [of COVID-19]," she said.
"As adults we need to look at the bigger picture ... it's our responsibility to put the needs of children first. We are not in that home - we can't possibly know everything that's happening."
Since schools' breakfast programs ceased, there has been a 30 per cent increase in families asking Barnardos for food, Ms Owen said.
Companies that work with children in out-of-home care, such as Adopt Change, say there is also increasing pressure on foster carers, who are used to having respite and support from school and other out-of-home services. "We're talking about carers with children with a history of trauma," said chief executive Renee Carter. "Now we've got those same kids at home, missing out on the interaction and assistance they would have at school.
"From a kid's perspective, they're cooped up at home. From a carer's perspective, they're not getting the breaks they would have had with respite services. It's a pressure cooker, you're having to work on the wellbeing over the carers so they are able to look after kids from a calm space."
Kathleen, a mother of seven who wanted to be identified only by her first name, suffers from anxiety and bi-polar disorder, and has little income or education. She would like to send some of the children to school, at least a few days a week, but believes she is not allowed to.
(This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.)